The Call of the Wild

Despite their limited range when it comes to acting chops, man’s best friend has a long history of capturing the Hollywood spotlight. From my childhood alone, I still have fond memories of dog-centric fare like Beethoven, Homeward Bound and Air Bud, just to name a few. The tradition has been in hiring well-trained canines along with their corresponding handlers but the latest adaptation of The Call of the Wild takes a different approach. Instead of casting a real-life dog, Disney has chosen the CGI route and rendered a new digital Buck from the ground up. Technology is such that Buck often looks rather convincing, especially the more time we spend with him, but all the special effects in the world still can’t disguise a lackluster story.

The premise follows the broad strokes of the Jack London novel upon which it is based, still centered around the St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix known as Buck. We follow him as he’s stolen from his pampered California life with the respected Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and shipped up to Alaska amidst the Gold Rush. After a temporary stint with cruel owners, he finds his way as a sled dog on a mail route with the much kinder Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee). Through teamwork and dedication, he is able to work his way up to alpha dog until the route is abruptly cancelled and he falls under new ownership by the odious city slicker Hal (Dan Stevens). Not longer after, he is rescued by outdoorsman John Thornton (Harrison Ford) and the two set off on a new adventure together.

The most important and prevalent hurdle for the film to manage is the believability of computer-generated Buck as a substitute for the on-screen flesh-and-blood canine to which we’re aquatinted. Save for a few frames here and there, I’m happy to report that the illusion worked quite seamlessly for me; I stopped thinking about whether the dog was “real” about 10 minutes in, which I would signify as a success. I appreciate that Buck appears not just in shadows or darkness, where it’s easy to conceal shoddy rendering, but also in many scenes in broad daylight. I had similar praise for Disney’s Lion King remake last year but thankfully, Buck is infinitely more expressive here than the stilted creatures in that production. Animators paid careful attention to all the mannerisms that make dogs so lovable in the first place, so every tail wag and eyebrow raise is calibrated for maximum potency.

The frustration sets in when we realize that director Chris Sanders and his screenwriter Michael Green brought very little new perspective to this tale, which has already been adapted several times for the big screen. Harrison Ford’s husky voiceover narration removes any iota of subtlety from each plot point, which may be helpful for younger viewers to track along but is sure to grow tedious for adult audiences. Understandably, Ford is prominently portrayed in the film’s poster and trailer but his character doesn’t really become a factor into the story until about an hour in. Once Buck and Ford share the screen, the movie’s true potential is unlocked but it takes multiple training montages and action sequences to get there.

More than any actor in the film, Ford makes us feel that Buck is not only real but a true companion to his lonely prospector character. Whether Buck is burying John’s troublesome bottle of whiskey or stashing John’s hat in his mouth, Ford brings the level of charm and playfulness that effortlessly recalls the Han Solo-Chewbacca relationship from the original Star Wars trilogy. If only the movie had spent more time with those two instead of wasting time with throwaway characters like Hal, a villain so comically over-the-top that I think Dan Stevens literally twirls his mustache at one point. The Call of the Wild is a serviceable update to a well-worn tale but it doesn’t quite have enough to make it stand out from the pack.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Invisible Man, starring Elisabeth Moss and Aldis Hodge, reimagines the classic H.G. Wells novel as a thriller about a woman who is being stalked by an abusive ex-boyfriend that nobody can see.
Playing at Cinema Center is Best International Feature Film Oscar nominee Pain and Glory, starring Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, about a film director who reflects on the choices he’s made as past and present come crashing down around him.
Also playing at Cinema Center is After Midnight, starring Jeremy Gardner and Brea Grant, about a man who house is attacked nightly by an unseen creature after his girlfriend suddenly disappears.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #40 – The Call of the Wild

I’m joined by my friend Bart as we journey into The Call of the Wild, the new family adventure movie from recent Disney acquisition 20th Century Studios. Then we discuss other shows we’ve been watching, including The Mandalorian on Disney+ and the acclaimed docuseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which is streaming on HBO. We also talk about Siskel & Ebert and their legacy on film criticism. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

The Lodge

Unless there’s a particularly compelling reason behind it, a delayed release for an indie feature (or any movie, really) is almost never a good sign. Debuting at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the occasionally disturbing but largely limp The Lodge finally sees limited release over a year after its premiere. Distributed by Neon, who had an incredible 2019 with releases like Best Picture winner Parasite and stellar documentary Apollo 11 among others, the film resembles stale leftovers a week after a delicious meal. Whether it’s the result of early year house-cleaning or not, there just isn’t enough in this snowbound snoozer to justify braving the elements to head to the theaters.

The story centers around brother and sister Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), who are bereft by the tragic passing of their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) as her divorce from their father Richard (Richard Armitage) is being finalized. Despite their mourning, Richard pursues a new relationship with the younger Grace (Riley Keough) and to make matters worse, he brings all three to a remote winter cabin in the hopes that it will bring them closer. It doesn’t take long before he’s called away for work, leaving the already tentative Grace alone with the two soon-to-be stepchildren. An awkward situation turns into something more sinister when the isolation and ill feelings dredge up secrets from Grace’s dark past.

In their English-language debut, Austrian directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala reassemble the same elements that made their previous film Goodnight Mommy such a terrifying masterpiece. Once again, we have a mother flanked by two youngsters in a sleek location removed from the rest of the world. Despite working from the same playbook, The Lodge fails both in telling an equally compelling story and in providing the kind of scares that are necessary for even a “slow-burn” chiller. A bigger issue is one of perspective; Goodnight Mommy is always told from the kids’ point-of-view but Franz and Fiala can’t decide this time around if we’re meant to empathize with Grace or with the children.

Despite its indie aspirations, the movie still commits the same boneheaded decisions that you would expect from a more mainstream horror picture. Characters make foolish decisions from the outset — decisions that put them inside the doomed cabin in the first place — and each subsequent poor choice draws them further away from our sympathy. Richard’s stunning level of callousness is never fully investigated but it’s difficult to feel anything but contempt for a character who strands his grieving children with a new girlfriend with whom they’re barely acquainted. Without revealing too much about the full narrative, it’s enough to say that neither Grace nor Aidan and Mia are completely virtuous in their actions as well.

Even if the story isn’t as engaging as it should be, the film always has a handsome aesthetic thanks to some top-tier production design and terrific camerawork. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who brought a similarly chilly approach to The Killing of a Sacred Deer, shoots the claustrophobic hallways of the rustic lodge with haunting stillness and Kubrickian remove. I also appreciates how Franz and Fiala foreshadow Grace’s presence by obscuring her figure behind frosted panes and icy car windows until finally revealing her fully around the 30 minute mark. The table is all set for a solid horror hit but The Lodge only manages to serve up a mish-mash of tropes that we’ve been served plenty of times before.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Call of the Wild, starring Harrison Ford and Dan Stevens, updates the classic Jack London novel about a grizzled explorer and a resilient dog who team up to find his way home.
Brahms: The Boy II, starring Katie Holmes and Ralph Ineson, follows the titular eerily life-like doll as he stalks a new family who moves into his mansion.
The Photograph, starring Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, is a romantic drama about a relationship between the estranged daughter of a famous photographer and the journalist assigned to cover her late mother.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #39 – Birds of Prey

I’m joined by my friend Jared as we sharpen our claws for Birds of Prey, the latest superhero movie in DC’s Extended Universe. Then we discuss other shows we’ve been watching, including the new CBS All Access series Star Trek: Picard and the bizarre espionage comedy-drama Patriot, which can be streamed in its entirety on Amazon Prime. We also do a debrief of the Oscars and recap Parasite‘s historic night. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Birds of Prey

Despite the overwhelmingly negative response that Suicide Squad received across the board, critics and fans agreed on one thing: Margot Robbie was born to play Harley Quinn. 4 years later, the anarchic anti-heroine gets her own spinoff of sorts in Birds Of Prey, whose subtitle And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn implies more of an origin story than a group outing. Like its full title, the film is similarly at odds with whether it wants to be a team-up movie a-la The Avengers or a more personal story centered around its central figure. More often than not, it splits the difference between these two ideals, which yields intermittently entertaining but ultimately frustrating results.

We pick up with Quinn after she’s been unceremoniously kicked to the curb by the Joker. The break-up sends shock waves throughout Gotham City, as Harley’s association with the Clown Prince offered her a level of power and protection that has since evaporated. This puts her in the crosshairs of nearly every lowlife that she’s wronged in the past, including the eccentric but ruthless gangster Roman Sionis (Evan McGregor). In order to square things with Sionis and his crew, Quinn is tasked with finding a diamond with banking codes embedded inside. Along the way, she recruits the crossbow-wielding assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Sionis’ personal driver Black Canary (Journey Smollett-Bell).

Stylistically and narratively, Birds of Prey feels like the DCEU’s response to the Deadpool series, specifically Deadpool 2 since both protagonists spend most of their runtimes shackled to a teenaged accomplice. Both Deadpool and Harley Quinn exert full meta control over their respective movies, cheekily relaying their own version of the stories with wall-to-wall voiceover. Quinn, and by extension director Cathy Yan, take things a step further by zig-zagging the narration back and forth through time to introduce new characters and context to the plot. It’s a fun trick the first time or two but it doesn’t take long for it to disrupt the momentum of the overall plot and leave too many plates spinning at once.

Thematically, the film does break new ground within the comic book genre in the ways that it overtly takes aim at misogyny, power dynamics and toxic masculinity. Its perspective on how the world has mistreated these female characters and how they’ve overcome their distinct struggles is undeniably a valuable one. It’s just a shame that these worthwhile themes are grafted onto a routine, McGuffin-driven plot with a predictable, albeit rollicking and well-choreographed, climax. The film’s outspoken feminist agenda is often persuasive but does overstep and strain credibility at points, as when Sionis mercilessly humiliates a female club patron for reasons that seem contrived even for a supervillain.

As in Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s committed work as Harley Quinn is the film’s strongest point. She brings the same brand of gleeful mischief and batty charisma to the role but she also finds new notes to play with in order to develop the character further. We see her smooth talk her way out of seemingly impossible confrontations and utilize her PhD as she psychologically sizes up criminals on the spot. This character obviously has enough depth to sustain her own feature and Robbie is clearly game for it, which makes the decision to shoehorn in the rest of these Birds of Prey that much more disappointing. When it comes to narrative ambition, Birds of Prey flies a bit too close to the sun.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Sonic the Hedgehog, starring Jim Carrey and James Marsden, brings the blue ball of energy from the Sega video game line to the big screen as he hides out on Earth and avoids the evil Dr. Robotnik.
Downhill, starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, re-imagines the Swedish dark comedy Force Majeure for American audiences as an avalanche during a family ski vacation throws things into disarray.
Fantasy Island, starring Michael Peña and Maggie Q, is the latest Blumhouse thriller about an island resort where guests have to solve the island’s mystery in order to escape with their lives.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Oscar Gold: American Beauty

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

What did we do to deserve a year in film as excellent as 1999? By this point, most cinephiles and critics are at consensus that the final year of the 1990s is one of the finest when it comes to consistent cinematic output. Just ask a group of movie buffs what their ‘99 favorite is and you’ll likely end up with a variety of laudable choices. With available titles like Eyes Wide Shut, The Matrix and Being John Malkovich, among a list of plenty of worthy contenders that could fill the rest of this column, there really are no wrong answers. However, one answer has been seemingly grown more “wrong” in the 20 years since it took home Best Picture: Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.

By the time the 72nd Academy Awards arrived in March of 2000, the film was a critical and commercial hit, grossing over $350 million worldwide against a $15 million budget and scoring rave reviews in the process. It was a heavy favorite to take home the majority of the 8 awards for which it was nominated and indeed that came to pass, as it won in 5 categories including the top prize. When you look at the rest of the Best Picture field that year (The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense), it’s not difficult to see how a film like American Beauty would stand apart. In a group of films helmed by seasoned directors, with Shyamalan as a notable exception, it was the rabble-rousing new kid on the block that Academy voters were eager to champion.

So what’s become of American Beauty’s legacy since then? It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the cultural conversation turned against its favor, aside from its initial detractors. As early as 2005, Premiere Magazine cited it as one of the “20 Most Overrated Movies Of All Time,” even though that list also included truly unimpeachable offerings like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fantasia. Since then, social media has allowed for a total relitigation of the film, years removed from the rapturous response from revered film critics like Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. It also goes without saying that after September 11th, the Great Recession and the country’s continuing political polarization, American Beauty’s concerns may read as trivial in retrospect.

But aside from the cataclysmic cultural shifts that have transpired, perhaps the most damning contribution to American Beauty’s decline has been the 2017 sexual misconduct allegations against Best Actor winner Kevin Spacey. With 15 accusers in counting, 3 of whom were victims of suicide last year alone, the assertions are troubling to say the very least. This along with a pair of confounding YouTube videos, in which Spacey gives cryptic advice as his House of Cards character Frank Underwood, has all but guaranteed that Spacey will never work in Hollywood again. Ridley Scott even scrubbed Spacey entirely from his 2017 film All The Money In The World, replacing him with Christopher Plummer merely a month before the release date.

These revelations about Spacey’s conduct make the film more difficult to revisit, especially given that much of the plot centers around Spacey’s Lester lusting after an underage girl. Recently rewatching the film for the first time in many years, I did my best to set the current context aside and watch as if it were 1999. In doing so, I was quite surprised with how much of American Beauty does hold up 20 years after its release. In his first screenplay for a feature film, Alan Ball shrewdly etches each of the main characters with a sardonic humor that still gives each of them their own unique voice and perspective. Its takes on middle-age malaise and suburban strife may not seem especially novel today but few films were investigating these themes as boldly as this one at the time of its release.

In his feature debut, Sam Mendes (who won Best Director back in 2000 and will likely do so again for 1917 on Sunday) showcases an impressive command of the form in the film’s opening moments. He lays out the plight of his put-upon protagonist along with his wife Carolyn and daughter Jane with cutting cynicism and economical editing. I was struck with just how much Mendes juggles thematically in this film, between the exploration of sexuality, materialism, homophobia, loss of identity and mortality. These are obviously touchy subjects for American cinema and Mendes pulls off the balance even better than I remembered.

Even if Mendes’ tale of middle class ennui doesn’t resonate with viewers, there’s enough technical prowess behind the camera to keep one engaged throughout. Thomas Newman’s still iconic musical score utilizes sensitive tuned percussion and lilting piano to counteract the dispassionate and glib tone of the film. In one of his last films before his passing in 2003, cinematographer Conrad Hall does career-best work with beautiful shot compositions and a sedate color palette that allows the color red to pop. He also throws in clever visual metaphors, as when Lester’s computer monitor at work captures his reflection against lines of code that resemble bars of a jail cell.

From Fight Club to Office Space, corporate imprisonment and subsequent liberation was a popular theme among 1999 films and it’s not difficult to see why. We were at the brink of a new millennium, with a host of new fears and anxieties at our doorstep. Y2K put us on high alert and in some ways, it feels like we never came down from it. The only escape, the film posits, is finding purpose and beauty in this world, even if its in observing an innocuous plastic bag dancing in the wind. Perhaps American Beauty is more pretentious in investigating this philosophy than some would like but that doesn’t make it any less deserving of a closer look.

Gretel & Hansel

The Brothers Grimm tale Hansel and Gretel has been adapted for the screen countless times, most recently and regrettably in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and now we have yet another take. Gretel & Hansel, the latest from The Blackcoat’s Daughter director Oz Perkins, primarily sticks to the narrative beats that will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the story. We have the titular sister and brother, played respectively by Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, who stumble upon a mysterious house in the middle of the dark woods. The homeowner, played by Alice Krige, accommodates them with a table full of endless feasts but the longer they stay, the more nefarious her intentions become.

Perkins uses this setup as a jumping off point to tell a more personalized coming-of-age tale centered around Gretel, whose prominence in the story is suggested by the film’s title. This time around, she’s twice as old as Hansel and is unquestionably the one in charge. She’s also been gifted with magical abilities, which are recognized and further developed by the witch who resides at that ever-tempting house. The focus on a female protagonist struggling with the temptation of witchcraft in a bleak setting is strikingly similar to 2016’s The Witch, even though the results here aren’t as compelling as they are in that excellent period horror piece.

Gretel & Hansel also resembles The Witch in its keen attention to production design and cinematography, which are often first-rate and enough to make it worth recommending. The film is more interested in accumulating dread than slapping audiences in the face with overt scares and much of this done with the atmosphere that creeps at the edges of the frame. Cinematographer Galo Olivarez uses unconventional lighting schemes to capture the beauty and terror of this world, sometimes even within the same shot. One such image, in which Gretel’s face is lit both by the blue of the moonlight and the orange of a flickering flame, is hauntingly lovely and of a caliber that one might not expect from a horror movie unceremoniously released over Super Bowl weekend.

The main trouble in Gretel & Hansel comes from the underdeveloped screenplay by Perkins and co-writer Rob Hayes, which doesn’t do quite enough to expand on the original fairy tale. Besides Gretel’s aforementioned personal journey, nearly everything else in the script feels like a distraction and filler to pad the already lean 87 minute runtime. Save a few scenes in the film’s opening with characters that are never seen nor heard from again, we spend the entirety of the movie with the trio of Gretel, Hansel and the Witch. That’s not inherently an issue but there isn’t enough character development between the trio to justify hanging the whole story on their shoulders.

In an attempt to patch up some of the shallow character work, Perkins includes an intermittent voiceover from Gretel, in which she ponders rhetorical questions like “is it wise to trust someone who appears when you need them?” These philosophical musings along with the lush landscapes give viewers an idea of what Terrence Malick may come up with if he were tasked to adapt a Grimm tale. Even though this voiceover rumination grows more pretentious as the movie goes on, I appreciate the artsy ambition in a genre that is often sorely in need of it. Gretel & Hansel is a classic case of style over substance but when the style is this superb, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Birds of Prey, starring Margot Robbie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, gives the DC Comics baddie Harley Quinn her own spin-off in which she recruits other female vigilante to take down a crime lord.
The Lodge, starring Riley Keough and Jaeden Martell, is a psychological chiller about a soon-to-be stepmom who gets snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote cabin.
Playing at Cinema Center this weekend are all of the Academy Award-nominated shorts for the Animated, Live Action and Documentary categories, which you can catch before Oscar Night on Sunday, February 9th.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup