First Glance: “Dolittle”

Dolittle

Author Hugh Lofting’s classic character and perennial children’s favorite Dr. Dolittle has a long and impressive history. Since first appearing in 1920, he has went from page to radio to television to the big screen. He’s appeared on stage, in a musical, as an animated series, you name it.

His latest iteration sees the intensely likable Robert Downey, Jr. playing the titular animal-loving character. The first trailer sports a really sweet vibe, a load of creature CGI, and it reveals a really great supporting cast. And of course Downey, Jr. is an automatic plus. But it doesn’t give us much in terms of story and the film has had several notable delays. Let’s hope it’s huge budget delivers more than just pretty visuals.

“Dolittle” lands in theaters January 17th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “The Big Short”

SHORTposter

You have to admit it takes a special talent to take collateralized debt obligations, subprime loans, and mortgage-backed securities and make something truly entertaining out of it. Yet that is exactly what Will Ferrell wingman turned partisan filmmaker Adam McKay has done with “The Big Short”, a strangely fun, fascinating and occasionally troublesome financial dramedy.

The movie is based on a book by Michael Lewis which chronicled the events leading up to the 2008 banking crisis. McKay sticks close to the book putting his sites on the easiest of targets – wealthy white-collar brokers and bankers.  To no surprise there were plenty of people ready to buy into the film without hesitation. Of course in reality it wasn’t as black-and-white and there were far more people for McKay to blame who conveniently get a pass.

151222_inv_bigshort

But enough of that. The entertainment is found in the snappy, whip-smart script by McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Interestingly the writing is also the source of some unfortunate frustration. “The Big Short” is jam-packed with Wall Street jargon and financial lingo that left my head spinning. The dialogue is dense and there is narration aplenty. The writing ends up being a double-edged sword – utterly captivating yet sometimes numbing for those who aren’t in the know.

The film follows three groups, each vaguely connected by the impending crisis. Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, an introverted hedge fund manager and the first person to notice the housing market is about to blow. The barefooted, cargo short-wearing Burry takes a big chunk of investor’s capital and bets billions of dollars on the market failing. Bale is the right guy for such an eccentric character but he disappears from the screen far too often.

Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, an angry and cynical money manager who doesn’t trust the banks or the current system. He and his team are convinced by Ryan Gosling’s Deutsche Bank wheeler-dealer Jared Vennett to go in together and bet against the banks. For Vennett it’s a chance to make some easy money. For Baum it’s an opportunity to stick it to the financial world and twist the knife by taking their money. Carell probably gets the most screen time and fills it with a fairly one-note performance. He’s perpetually angry and always shouting. Think Michael Scott with less humor and a really sour attitude.

The third group features two young whiz kid investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who turned $110,000 to $30 million out of their Boulder, Colorado garage. They move to New York and get a whiff of the looming crash. Seeing dollar signs they convince a disillusioned securities trader named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to use his connections to get them in the game before the bottom falls out of the market.

SHORT2

McKay bounces back-and-forth between these packs of financial wolves as they each try to position themselves for the biggest payoff. Again, the narration is aplenty often breaking the fourth wall. And in a weird attempt at mixing cleverness with humor, we get brief lessons on Wall Street terminology from celebrities playing themselves. Margot Robbie in a bubble bath talking about mortgage funds, Selina Gomez at a blackjack table explaining Synthetic CDOs, etc. It’s amusing but a bit distracting.

As “The Big Short” winds its way to its inevitable ending I felt exhausted. Trying to keep up with all of the fast market talk and financial blather wore me down. And there’s so much emphasis on it that the movie comes off as overstuffed and missing the human element which would have given it a more powerful punch. And McKay’s selective storytelling and convenient omissions keep the film from having the sting of authenticity it should. Still I admit to being mesmerized by the all business back-and-forths and how well the cast sells it even if I didn’t always understand what the heck they were saying.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

First Glance: “Jungle Cruise”

JUNGLEposter

It’s tempting to say putting a huge amount of money into a movie based on a theme park ride sounds nuts. But then you think of a little film franchise called “Pirates of the Caribbean” and suddenly it doesn’t sound so crazy. “Jungle Cruise” sees Disney trying to strike gold yet again.

The first trailer for “Jungle Cruise” dropped late last week and I admit to being a little surprised. Right off the bat it gets points for casting Emily Blunt as its lead. She’s such a delightful actress full of energy and personality. And then they team her with someone else known for their energy and personality – Dwayne Johnson. The two look to be having a lot of fun and the jungle adventure angle has a ton of potential.

“Jungle Cruise” is slated for a July 24, 2020 release. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

Denzel Day #7 : “Malcolm X” (1992)

MalcolmBIG

Over a span of two months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.

It may not seem like it today, but getting “Malcolm X” made was no easy task for filmmaker Spike Lee. Bringing this highly controversial figure’s life to the big screen brought heat from all sides. Lee was criticized by defenders of Malcolm X who feared how he would be portrayed. Many in the white community disapproved siting Malcolm X’s comments and positions deemed by many to be racist and anti-Semitic.

Interestingly Lee even ran into trouble with Warner Bros. who failed to give him the full funding needed to finish the film he wanted to make. With outside help and a lot of determination, Lee finally was able to get his movie across the finish line complete with a 3 hour 20 minute running time.

Malcolm1

Lee (who also served as co-writer and co-producer) based much of his film on Alex Haley’s 1965 book “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”. He already had the right man in place to play the titular lead character even before he signed on to direct – Denzel Washington. Petty concerns over Washington’s height and darker complexion were quickly tossed aside once people saw his performance. This was the second of four collaborations between Spike Lee and Denzel Washington and their sharp chemistry together was immediately evident.

Out of the gate “Malcolm X” comes across as very much a standard biopic. But to Lee’s credit he’s not just feeding us information by simply making stops across the timeline. He wants to put us in Malcolm’s shoes. He wants to represent to us the circumstances and influences that shaped the man who eventually turned from a small-time thief and hustler into a powerful civil rights firebrand.

He was born Malcolm Little but during “the war years” he was known as Red. After running afoul of a low-level Harlem gangster, Red flees to Boston where he and his hipster pal Shorty (played by Lee) prowl the nightlife in bright zoot suits and with white women on their arms. Soon they begin running numbers and committing petty burglaries which lead to his arrest and a 10-year prison sentence.

Malcolm2

These scenes are broken up by powerful although sometimes klunky flashbacks which present key moments from Malcolm’s upbringing. They include the murder of his father (framed as a suicide but widely believed to be by the KKK), his separation from his siblings by the state, and his mother’s resulting mental illness. He grew up in foster homes where he was a bright kid and a good student even being voted class president. Yet in one scene a white teacher tells him his aspirations of being a lawyer were unrealistic. Instead he should do something more “fitting for a negro“, something like carpentry. These life experiences give form to the man Malcolm would soon become.

Prison proves to be a turning point for Malcolm (and the film). He falls under the spell of a persuasive fellow inmate who introduces him to the doctrines of the Nation of Islam. On one hand it leads him to reevaluate his life, putting aside his past vices. On the other hand he is seduced by the teachings of NOI leader Elijah Mohammad (Al Freeman, Jr) who advocated the complete separation between whites and blacks. He put a needed spotlight on injustices both past and present. But he also taught that all whites are “devils” and that unity among races was not the answer.

The remainder of the movie focuses on Malcolm’s rise through the NOI ranks and into the national spotlight as his powerful speech and ability to control a crowd draws attention from all sides. Lee takes us through the incendiary comments and public controversies; Malcolm’s eventual riff with the jealous NOI leadership; the transformation of his sweeping indictments and personal prejudices to a more thoughtful and inclusive point of view. And of course his assassination on the night of February 21, 1965.

Malcolm3

This would all make for an interesting historical essay but what makes it work as a piece of cinema is the humanity Lee and Washington brings to the character. We see it most through the deep-digging personal scenes between Malcolm and his wife Betty. She’s played by a superb Angela Bassett who brings an emotional resonance to every scene she’s in. Washington is as convincing in the intimate moments as he is when brandishing Malcolm X’s unbridled, fiery tongue on a street corner or behind a pulpit. It’s a brilliantly multi-layered performance that opened a lot of eyes.

Spike Lee’s epic-sized biopic covers a lot of ground. The first half is a bit long even though none of its scenes feel wasted. It’s the second half where things really pick up and the complexities of Malcom X take shape. Lee paints a fascinating portrait of a man hardened by racial injustice, drawn to a divisive ideology, and then opened to a new way of seeing things. In Lee’s portrayal the Malcolm who once said “The only thing I like integrated is my coffee” is not the same man we see later.  And while he was still clear-eyed regarding the vile and often violent nature of racism, he sought more unified ways of confronting it. In the end that’s what makes the film all the more tragic.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

First Glance: “Bombshell”

BOMB1

The story behind the fall of Fox News mogul Roger Ailes amid accusations of sexual harassment seems perfect for the modern day big screen. But in such a ridiculously polarized and toxic political climate could they tell this story in a way that did justice to the facts and more importantly the women who risked their careers telling their stories? After watching the new trailer for “Bombshell” I still don’t know the answer to that.

The trailer’s cringy and glaringly on-the-nose opening instantly brings into question whether this is going to be an eye-opening expose or a heavy-handed political hit piece. Sure, that kind of garb will always have its apologists, but I’m more interested in the women (played by the compelling trio of Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and Charlize Theron) and their fight to expose workplace sexual harassment. Thankfully we get hints of that later in the trailer. So if they keep the nonsense out and stick with the true story this could be really good. Needless to say I’m a little skeptical.

“Bombshell” hits theaters December 20th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or giving it a pass.

REVIEW: “In the Tall Grass” (2019)

TALLsmall

There has been a small wave of recent Netflix Originals adapted from the works of Stephen King. The most recent is “In the Tall Grass”, an unusual little horror-thriller based on a 2012 novella King co-wrote with Joe Hill, the pen name of his oldest son. It’s built around an interesting premise but unfortunately it’s one of the cases of there not being enough material to see the movie through to the end.

Writer-director Vincenzo Natali does what he can to stretch King’s short story to feature length. The entire film takes place in one rural location and features lots of tall grass, lots of yelling, and a huge mysterious rock at the center of it all. It throws out a cool idea or two and the cast is game but the whole thing eventually runs out of gas.

TALL2

The film opens with Cal (Avery Whitted) driving his pregnant sister Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) to San Diego where they are to meet with a family interested in adopting her baby. Along the way Becky gets nauseous so they pull over near a church in a remote area resembling the Midwest. Outside she hears the scared pleas of a young boy named Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) crying out of an endless field of (you guessed it) tall grass.

Unable to lead the boy to the road Becky and Cal make the cardinal mistake of venturing into the grass. Of course they get separated and their voices prove to be unworthy guides. It quickly becomes apparent there is something off with this field. Cal bumps into the wide-eyed Tobin while Becky crosses paths with Ross (Patrick Wilson), Tobin’s father who says he and his wife Natalie (Rachel Wilson) got separated in the grass searching for their son.

TALL3

The final piece of the human puzzle (and the only other cast member) is Becky’s ex and the father of her baby Travis (Harrison Gilbertson). He’s been looking for the siblings and finds their vehicle near the field. He too ventures into the grass getting lost in its haze of creepy hallucinations, disorienting sounds, and confusing time twists. Once he has everyone in, Natali begins unfurling his mystery. It includes unpacking old family baggage and throwing out some weird supernatural twists.

When everything finally comes together you can’t help but appreciate what Natali is doing. The storytelling can be a little thorny, but it’s pieces finally fit together in a pretty clever way. Still, there is only so much you can do with such a small amount of source material and in compensating for that “In the Tall Grass” repeats itself too much. And without any really compelling characters to latch onto, you’re left appreciating the idea while wishing there was more to it.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars