Dolittle Jones

Dolittle

by George Wolf

Man, when I was a kid I wanted a Pushmi-Pullyu so bad.

I would try to get all the way through “If I Could Talk to the Animals” without messing up a lyric, and imagine how fun it would be to get one of those mythical Pushmis delivered in a crate, just like Rex Harrison in 1967’s original Dr. Dolittle.

Over thirty years later, Eddie Murphy ditched the tunes for a more straightforward comedic approach in two franchise updates, and now Robert Downey, Jr. steps in to move the doctor a little closer to Indiana.

Jones, that is.

But’s it’s Indy by way of Victorian-era Britain, as Young Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) calls on the famous animal-taking doctor with a dispatch from Buckingham Palace and an urgent plea to help the deathly ill Queen Victoria herself (Jessie Buckley).

As suspicions arise about Royal Dr. Mudfly (Michael Sheen) and the true nature of the Queen’s ills, Dolittle and friends (some human, most not) set sail on a grand adventure to acquire the cure from King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who just happens to be the father of Dolittle’s dear departed Lily (Kasia Smutniak).

Plus, there’s a big dragon.

Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) re-sets the backstory with an animated fairy tale, then ups the ante on action while letting Downey, Jr. and a menagerie of star voices try to squeeze out all the fun they can.

From Emma Thompson to John Cena, Octavia Spencer to Rami Malek, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes and Kumail Nanjiani to Selena Gomez and more, the CGI zoo juggles personalities, while Downey curiously chooses a whispered, husky delivery that sometimes makes his Do a little hard to understand.

But, of course, he still manages to craft an engaging character, even centering the Dr. with a grief just authentic enough for adults without bringing down the childlike wonder.

This is a Dr. Dolittle set on family adventure mode, with plenty of talking animal fun for the little ones and a few clever winks and nudges for the parents. But as the start of a possible franchise, it’s more of a handshake than a high-five. It may not leave you with belly laughs or tunes stuck in your head, but it’s eager to please manner doesn’t hurt a bit.

Oh, Mama

Ma

by Hope Madden

Oh my God, you guys. Did you know Tate Taylor directed the new Octavia Spencer horror flick, Ma?

You know, Tate Taylor. Girl on a Train. Get On Up. The effing Help – that Tate Taylor.

No wonder Octavia Spencer is in it, and God bless her for it because she commits to a role that, in other hands, could have been utterly, laughably predictable.

In fact, were it not for a breathtakingly better-than-this-material cast, Ma would have devolved quickly into every other “get back at the popular kids – oh, wait, maybe let’s vilify and re-victimize the unpopular instead” horror.

Spencer’s Sue Ann, or Ma, as the kids call her, is just an easy mark for teens wanting alcohol. Yes, she’ll buy it as long as you drink it at her house where she knows you’re safe.

Does she have nefarious motives?

She does.

For her part, the Oscar-winner (for Taylor’s The Help) convinces, drawing both sympathy and fear. She’s joined in small roles by another Oscar winner (an almost jarringly funny Allison Janney) and an Oscar nominee (Juliette Lewis) as well as Luke Evans and a set of talented young actors led by Booksmart’s Diana Silvers.

How on earth did this by-the-numbers outsider/don’t trust the lonely older lady horror flick draw this cast?!

I do not know, because Ma has nothing really new to say, so it relies in its entirety on this cast to entertain. But there are two reasons that this story and this particular cast are actually Ma’s problems.

One is something that still surprises me about horror. On the whole, horror appeals to outcasts. And yet, from Carrie White to the coven in The Craft to Sue Ann in Ma, horror films reestablish the status quo by putting outcasts in their place. Sure, they get that grand few moments of terrorizing the beautiful, popular kids, but things end badly in horror movies for the outcast.

Here’s what troubles me even more about Tate Taylor, and to a degree, Octavia Spencer films. (Note that Spencer executive produced the racially problematic and utterly mediocre Green Book.)

Ma is racially tone deaf. I have no idea why this wealthy Southern white man insists on telling stories exclusively about African Americans, but he truly should not. A story that vilifies the lonely middle aged woman, seeing her as a broken psychotic based on her generally pathetic nature, is misogynistic. When this villain is also the only African American woman in the film, that problem is heightened dramatically.

Don’t get me wrong—I am a fanatical horror fan, and when an Oscar -winner (and multiple nominee) chooses to star, let alone star as the villain (the most important character) in a horror film, I am all in.

But this was the wrong movie.

Write What You Know

Instant Family

by George Wolf

The comedy output of writer/director Sean Anders has ranged from decent (Hot Tub Time Machine, We’re the Millers) to disaster (That’s My Boy, Daddy’s Home 2). His latest works as well as it does thanks to leaning more on heart than humor.

That’s most likely because Anders is telling much of his own story here, and a warm authenticity buoys even the film’s most ridiculous moments.

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne are Pete and Ellie Wagner, a California couple who run a home renovation business and remain undecided about having children. A flippant remark from Pete leads Ellie to investigate foster parenting, which then leads to three young siblings moving in.

There is, to put it mildly, an adjustment period.

Yes, Anders’s parallel of renovating homes and families is plenty obvious, but it goes down easier with his commitment to sincerity about an important topic. The film doesn’t shy away from pointing out the difficult aspects to foster parenting, utilizing an odd-couple pair of case workers (Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, playing nicely off each other) as an effectively organic vessel for reminding us that “things that matter are hard.”

The laugh quotient rarely rises above a good chuckle, and you can expect some obligatory music montages and family comedy trappings, but some well-drawn characters and a likable cast keep that sizable heart beating.

Byrne continues to show the timing of a comedy MVP, Wahlberg seems more comfortable with the genre than usual, and Margo Martindale breezes in with memorable support as Grandma Sandy, but Anders, speaking from experience, makes sure to remember it’s about the kids.

He doesn’t use children just to be cute (although they are), but as real characters at the core of this arc. This is especially true of oldest sibling Lizzy, thanks to the standout performance from Isabela Moner (Sicario 2), a true young talent.

Always more fuzzy than consistently funny, Instant Family offers plenty of good feels backed up with some lived-in comfortability.





Quality Time

A Kid Like Jake

by Rachel Willis

What happens to parents when they’re confronted with the truth about their child? In A Kid Like Jake, the titular Jake is not the kind of five-year-old boy who likes trucks and cars, but rather princesses and fairy tales. His parents, Alex and Greg (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons), see it as a harmless phase. But when it seems possible it’s more than a phase, they’re forced to confront their own fears and prejudices.

Writer Daniel Pearle (adapting from from his play) and director Silas Howard address a topic that deserves attention. With a sensitive touch, they’ve crafted a film that is heartfelt and earnest.

The film’s main shortcomings occur during the first act. It takes the film a while to get to the meat of the issue, spending too much time on inconsequential details, including a montage of private school tours that has no real bearing on the story. Rather than focusing on this minutia, the film would have been better served if some of the ancillary characters were given more to do. Friends and family members are introduced (and played well by the likes of Octavia Spencer, Ann Dowd and Priyanka Chopra), but never satisfactorily weaved into the main drama.

As Jake’s parents, Danes and Parsons work best together when they’re at odds. The dialog during Alex and Greg’s most charged moments is impeccable. Their idyllic scenes, on the other hand, are shallow. The attempt at showing us a loving family is superficial, and it’s hard to root for people we never get a chance to know.

However, there are interesting dilemmas explored in the film. When Jake wants to dress as Rapunzel for Halloween, Alex instead brings home a pirate costume for him. Her rationale is that she wants to avoid weird looks or negative comments. She wants to “protect” her son. But as Jake acts out, it’s clear that her protection is misguided. Rather than defending her son, she’s part of the problem. Greg comes to this realization more quickly, recognizing his son’s change in demeanor as a sign he’s unhappy. It leads to confrontations that are uncomfortable, yet recognizable.

As for Jake, most of what we learn about him comes from exposition. This is likely a result of the transition from stage play to film. In some ways, it works, as Jake knows who he is. But in a world that needs greater representation for gender nonconformity and transgender men and women, it would have been nice to spend time with Jake instead of only seeing him through other people’s eyes.





Fright Club: Oscar Nominee Skeletons in the Closet

You know what? This year’s batch of Oscar hopefuls have made some genuinely excellent horror movies. Richard Jenkins starred in not only the amazing Bone Tomahawk, but also the underseen Fright Club favorite Let Me In. Willem Dafoe took a beating in the amazing Antichrist and grabbed an Oscar nomination for his glorious turn in Shadow of the Vampire. Laurie Metcalf made us laugh and squirm in Scream 2 and Woody Harrelson led one of our all time favorite zombie shoot-em-ups, Zombieland.

But what’s the fun in talking about that when so many of the nominees have made so many bad movies? Here we focus on the worst of the worst, but if you check out the podcast we mention even more.

5. Halloween II (2009)

Octavia Spencer’s 20+ year career, struggling early with low-budget supporting work, guarantees her a place in this list. Indeed, she could have taken several slots (2006’s Pulse is especially rank), but we find ourselves drawn to Rob Zombie’s sequel to his 2007 revisionist history.

Zombie ups the violence, adds dream sequences and suggests that Laurie Strode (played here, poorly, by Scout Taylor-Compton) shares some hereditary psychosis with her brother Michael.

Spencer plays the Night Nurse, which naturally means that she dies. Pretty spectacularly, actually, but that hardly salvages the mirthless cameo-tastic retread.

4. Gary Oldman: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Francis Ford Coppola took his shot at Dracula in ’92. How’d he do?

Cons: Keanu Reeves cannot act. Winona Ryder can act—we’ve seen her act—but she shows no aptitude for it here, and lord she should not do accents. Anthony Hopkins has always enjoyed the taste of scenery, but his performance here is just ham-fisted camp.

Pros: Gary Oldman, who can chomp scenery with the best chewers in the biz, munches here with great panache. He delivers a perversely fascinating performance. His queer old man Dracula, in particular – asynchronous shadow and all – offers a lot of creepy fun. Plus, Tom Waits as Renfield – nice!

Still, there’s no looking past Ryder, whose performance is high school drama bad.

3. Clownhouse (1989)

There are several fascinating pieces of information concerning the derivative yet uniquely weird Clownhouse. These range from odd to awful.

1) The Sundance Film Festival somehow found this film—this one, Clownhouse, the movie about 3 escaped mental patients who dress as clowns, break into a house where three brothers are home alone on Halloween night, and commence to terrify and slaughter them— worthy of a nomination for Best Drama. If you haven’t seen this film, you might not quite recognize how profoundly insane that is.

2) The great and underappreciated Sam Rockwell made his feature debut as the dickhead oldest brother in this movie. The clowns themselves—Cheezo, Bippo, and Dippo—are genuinely scary and garishly fascinating, but outside of them, only Rockwell can act. At all.

3) Writer/director Victor Salva would go on to create the Jeepers Creepers franchise. But first he would serve 15 months of a 3-year state prison sentence for molesting the 12-year-old lead actor in this film, Nathan Forrest Winters.

So, basically, this film should never have been made. But at least Rockwell got his start here.

2. Margot Robbie: ICU (2009)

Margot Robbie is a confirmed talent. Underappreciated in her wickedly perfect turn in Wolf of Wall Street, she has gone on to prove that she is far more than a stunning beauty (though she certainly is that).

Not that you’d realize that by way of her early work in this low-budget Aussie dumpster fire.

The then-19-year-old leads a cast of unhappy teens vacationing for the weekend with their estranged dad, who’s called into work yet again. To entertain themselves, they peep on their neighbors through the facing skyscraper windows.

Robbie showers, swims and changes clothes at least 3 needless times within the film’s opening 10 minutes, which makes a film that wags a finger at modern voyeurism feel a little hypocritical. But to even make that statement is to take writer/director Aash Aaron’s film too seriously. Heinously acted, abysmally written and tediously directed, it amounts to 50 minutes of whining followed by utterly ludicrous plot twists, unless Australia boasts the largest per-capita number of serial killers on earth.

But the point is this: Robbie would go on to deliver stellar performances, so this is just something we all need to shake off.

1. Frances McDormand: Crimewave (1985)

Is a horror film really a horror film just because imdb.com says so?

Well, anything as bad as Crimewave is a horror, that’s for sure. The fact that it’s a slapstick crime comedy at its heart hardly matters.

Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, directed by Sam Raimi and co-starring Bruce Campbell, this film has a pedigree. And we love them all so much we can almost forgive them for this insufferable disaster. But we suffered through it for two scenes—one at the beginning, one at the end—involving a nun who’s taken a vow of silence.

Frances McDormand, what the hell are you doing in this movie?

No, no. We get it. If we were duped into optimism by Coen brother involvement, what hope did you have? You couldn’t have known that the result would be a tiresome, embarrassing, un-funny, painful waste of 83 minutes.





Swimming in Romance

The Shape of Water

by Hope Madden

In its own way, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a tragic romance. But what if it weren’t? Tragic, I mean. What if beauty loved the beast?

It seems like a trend this year.

An unforgettable Sally Hawkins—an actor who has never hit a false note in her long and underappreciated career—gets her chance to lead a big, big show. She plays Elisa, a mute woman on the janitorial team for a research institute in Cold War era Baltimore.

Enter one night a malevolent man (Michael Shannon), and a mysterious container. Color Elisa intrigued.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is an overt romantic. So many of his films—Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peak—swim in romance, but he’s never made as dreamily romantic or hypnotically sensual a film as The Shape of Water. And he hasn’t made a film this glorious since his 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Del Toro favorite Doug Jones—Pan’s Pale Man and Hellboy’s Abe Sapien—gets back into a big, impressive suit, this time to play Amphibian Man. His presence is once again the perfect combination of the enigmatic and the familiar.

The supporting cast—Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg—are among the strongest character actors Hollywood has to offer and del Toro ensures that they have material worthy of their talent. Each character is afforded not only his or her own personality but peculiarity, which is what makes us all both human and unique—important themes in keeping with the story. With Hawkins and Jones, they populate a darkly whimsical, stylish and retro world.

Characteristic of del Toro’s work, Shape of Water looks amazing. Its color scheme of appropriate greens and blues also creates the impossible truth of sameness within otherness, or the familiar with the alien.

The aesthetic is echoed in Alexandre Desplat’s otherworldly score and mirrored by Dan Laustsen’s dancing camera.

The end result is a beautiful ode to outsiders, love and doing what you must.





Girl with All the Gifts

Gifted

by Hope Madden

A pensive charmer tries to raise a child prodigy on his own. Gifted offers a premise as rife with possibilities as it is weighed down by likely cliché and melodrama, and it strangely meanders somewhere between the two.

Chris Evans attempts the gruff everyman with some success, playing Uncle Frank, guardian to math genius Mary (Mckenna Grace – very solid). Against the advice of his landlord and Mary’s bestie Roberta (Octavia Spencer), Frank enrolls Mary as a first grader in a local public school.

There Mary wows her good natured teacher (Jenny Slate), and draws the attention of her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), who’s been MIA since Mary’s mother – another family genius – died when the girl was just a babe.

What’s the best way to care for a gifted child? This is the conundrum at the heart of the film. In rooting out the answer, writer Tom Flynn wisely keeps Mary at the center of the story. She’s an actual character, not a prop for evangelizing one course of action over another.

Luckily, Grace is up to the task, and her chemistry with Evans feels genuine enough to make you invest in their story.

Perhaps more important is Duncan, a formidable talent who elevates a tough role. She, too, shares a warm chemistry with Evans, and it’s that kind of unexpected character layering that helps Gifted transcend its overcooked family dramedy leanings.

On occasion, Gifted is Little Man Tate without the pathos. At other times, it’s Good Will Hunting for first graders.

Strong performances help the film navigate sentimental trappings, but Flynn’s script veers off in too many underdeveloped and downright needless directions, and director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) can’t find a tone.

Gifted is warm without being too sweet. Though it knows the answer to the question it’s asking, the film resists oversimplification and never stoops to pitting one-dimensional characters against each other in service of a sermon.

Though the final decision about what’s best for Mary is really never in doubt, in getting to that revelation, the film acknowledges nuance in the choice.

That’s not to say Gifted avoids cliché altogether, or that it embraces understatement. It does not – on either count. But it does present an intriguing dilemma, populates its story with thoughtful, almost realistic characters, and refuses to condescend to its audience or its characters.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Tin Roof, Rusted

The Shack

by George Wolf

Grief, faith and healing are serious subjects, but is it really fair to expect depth on these matters from a film based on a children’s story? To see how it can be done, you need only go back a few months to find When A Monster Calls, so yes, it’s more than fair.

There is precious little depth at home in The Shack, despite the mansions full of good intentions.

The uneven mix of sermon and parable follows Mac (Sam Worthington), a grieving father turning away from religion after the murder of his young daughter. A strange invite lures him to the scene of the crime itself, where Mac meets God (Octavia Spencer, pulling it off as you knew she would) and begins his journey of reconciliation.

Based on the self-published novel by William P. Young (originally intended only as a gift for his children), The Shack cannot get us invested in either Mac or his family. Director Stuart Hazeldine and a team of writers (which surprisingly includes Destin Daniel Cretton, director of the excellent Short Term 12) instead manage paper-thin cliches and narrated platitudes such as “She’s the glue that holds the family together” posing as character development.

Mac’s question for the Almighty is big and familiar. If God loves us, how can he/she permit evil acts to occur? The answers, sweet but hardly profound, are hampered by execution which seems bent on reassuring the white suburban male.

In addition to Spencer’s God, Mac has spiritual meetings with an Asian woman, an Israeli, a Native American and a Latina. An underlying message of wisdom through diversity or just more “magic ethnicity” at the movies? If it’s the former, having Mac return home to a completely white congregation is not helping.

Good films rarely resort to preaching about anything. For 132 minutes, this film relies on a structure that’s inherently problematic for anyone but the choir. It tells us much but, despite a few lush visuals, shows us very little. As lovely as the message may be, The Shack is a strangely joyless endeavor, landing more as a chore than a calling.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 





Calculating Ladies

Hidden Figures

by George Wolf

When you learn whose story is being told by Hidden Figures -three African American women who were instrumental to the success of America’s space program – no one could blame you for fearing the “white savior.”

Thankfully, director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) avoids that pitfall…for the most part, anyway.

In the 1960s, mathematicians Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) were working in segregated areas of Langley Research Center in Virginia. As pressure mounted for the U.S. to catch up in the “space race,” Johnson (a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient in 2015) was promoted to calculating launch and flight data for Project Mercury, while Vaughan and Jackson blazed similar trails in computer programming and engineering, respectively.

It is an inspiring piece of history, one that is overdue for a big screen tribute, and Melfi -who also helped adapt the script from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book-gives it as much respect as he can without fully committing to the heroines themselves.

That’s not to say this is patronizing fodder on the order of The Blind Side or even The Help, far from it. But some moments of achievement from these African American women are framed as if the credit should go to the white people (mostly men) for realizing the ills of segregation and courageously allowing these geniuses to contribute.

When NASA director Al Harrison (a fictional composite played by Kevin Costner) reverses Langley’s segregated restroom policy, he does it in the most grandstanding, heroic way possible as the music swells to self-congratulatory crescendos. Dramatic? Oh yes. Pandering? You bet, and unnecessary.

A late exchange between Vaughan and a supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) has the subtle bite that shows Melfi content to merely knock on a door that needed opening.

The three principal actors are terrific, Costner, Dunst and the rest of the ensemble (including Mahershala Ali and Jim Parsons) provide fine support, the film is competently written and judiciously paced.

Hidden Figures has all the parts for what could have been a more meaningful sum, if it was a bit less concerned with playing it safe. And considering the subject matter, that’s ironic.

You might even call it a miscalculation.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

 

 





Occupy the Bar Car

 

Snowpiercer

by George Wolf

 

Those pinhead libs in Hollywood are at it again! This time, they’ve got something called Snowpiercer, and are trying to distract us with simmering tension, a smart script and terrific action, but the hidden agenda is clearly just another unwarranted attack on our job creators!

Actually, the agenda is far from hidden, in fact, it might as well be a deadly-aimed snowball right to the face of John Galt.

And damn, it’s well done.

Adapted from a 1982 French graphic novel, Snowpiercer drops us in the year 2031, 17 years after a desperate attempt to curb global warming instead resulted in a new ice age. What’s left of humanity travels the globe on a high speed train, where a very specific social order is enforced. Can you guess?

Makers in the luxurious front, takers in the squalid back.

But there’s a revolution brewing, reluctantly led by the cunning, pensive Curtis (Chris Evans, solid again) and his eager, impulsive sideman Edgar (Jamie Bell). After another degrading “know your place” speech by Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton, gloriously over-the-top), the charge to take over the train begins.

In his English-language debut, South Korean director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong flexes some serious filmmaking muscle. Bong (The Host, Mother) takes full advantage of the claustrophobic setting, both as a metaphor for the ills of society and as a springboard for spectacularly realized action sequences.

His pacing is impeccable as well, ratcheting up the tension incrementally as the rebels advance one train car at a time.

Snowpiercer is a film that’s also very aware of the well-worn path it treads. The story, born in the days of Reaganomics, employs a very high-concept premise to illustrate its still-relevant themes. Bong suspends any disbelief with a mixture of B-movie earnestness and black comedy, as well as constant nods to today’s political climate (notice how Swinton enunciates “occupy”) and classic films of years past (from Soylent Green to The Shining).

It’s all completely captivating, and downright refreshing in the way Bong and his game cast (also featuring John Hurt, Octavia Spencer and South Korean film vet Kang-ho Song) respect both the material and their audience. Even the most fervent critics of the “Hollywood elite” may appreciate the questions raised about personal sacrifice and abuse of power.

By the time the Twilight Zone-style dominoes start falling near film’s end, you realize the most thrilling ride of the summer may not be at the amusement park after all.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars