REVIEW: “The Call of the Wild” (2020)

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When prepping to watch “The Call of the Wild” I couldn’t help but wonder which is the greater American classic: Jack London’s timeless 1903 novel or Harrison Ford? If I was honest I’d have to admit that I find Ford to be the bigger draw. But personal bias aside, London’s beloved novel is a significant blind spot for me so I was anxious to see what it was all about.

This latest adaption had its share of pluses and minuses. I’ve already mentioned Ford and the source material as strengths. Add to it a really good supporting cast. On the negative side, a movie with a $150 million budget getting a February release usually isn’t a good sign. And you never know what you’re going to get when there’s such a hefty dependence animal CGI.

Long-time animator, screenwriter, and director Chris Sanders makes his live-action directorial debut, working from a script written by Michael Green (“Logan”, “Blade Runner 2049”). Their lead character is a congenial and rambunctious St. Bernard-Scotch Collie dog named Buck. Here’s the catch, he isn’t played by a real dog at all. He’s an elaborate coat of CGI on top of a fine motion capture performance from the talented Terry Notary. The problem is you never fully forget he is a digital creation despite how impressive he looks.

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Photo: 20th Century Studios

In fairness I’m not sure London’s story could have been told any other way. Buck’s harrowing adventure across the Yukon is filled will action and peril and I simply can’t see a real pup pulling it off. The good thing is there is enough personality in Buck to make him feel like a full-on character. He works best when he is simply being a dog and doing doggie things. It’s when the filmmakers add human expressions that Buck suddenly comes across as fake.

Buck’s overall story is heart-tugging but it’s the human actors who sell it best. Set in the 1890’s during the Gold Rush, the story begins in Santa Clara, California where the clumsy but lovable Buck lives happily with a well-to-do local judge (Bradley Whitford). Gold Fever has driven people to pay top dollar for able dogs to pull sleds in the Yukon where “there’s gold in them thar hills“. Buck is snatched by scoundrels, sold to an abusive trader, and stuck on a freighter bound for the Klondike.

Buck is purchased by Perrault, a kind man who delivers mail across the frozen Yukon. He’s played by the delightful French actor Omar Sy who brings a lot of warmth to the screen. Perrault needs an extra sled dog for his arduous route and sees something special in Buck. But once again not everyone Buck encounters represents the best side of humanity. Dan Stevens is a hoot playing a dastardly business man who only cares about the glittering fortune hidden in the mountains. Stevens’ scene-chewing is fun to watch even though his cruelty towards Buck isn’t.

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Photo: 20th Century Studios

As Buck moves from master to master, he keeps crossing paths with John Thornton (Ford), a tortured lost soul trying to cope with a family tragedy. He also serves as the movie’s narrator. From their first meeting the two seem destined to come together. Both are far from home and both are looking for something more valuable than gold. The grizzled Ford gives an earnest and understated performance, quietly lending pathos to Thornton while doing all he can to help us believe in Buck.

The story plays out through picturesque locations set across the gorgeous Canadian wilderness. Surprisingly, the bulk of it was shot in and around Los Angeles. Most of the stunning backdrops are CGI but so well done that you would never know it otherwise. That makes it easy to get lost in the beautiful, lush scenery.

In “The Call of the Wild” we get a story of a dog who witnesses the best and worst of humanity. Think of it as a Disney-fied “Au Hasard Balthazar” which is still giving it way too much credit. I hear it has been tamed down from the novel which might not sit well with purists, but that’s why I never pit movie against book. When taken on its own merits, it’s a satisfying crowdpleaser. A quick note: be careful with its PG rating. If you have young children go in thinking PG-13 instead.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Christmas Chronicles” (2018)

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They had me at Kurt Russell as Santa Claus. You heard me right. The bushy-faced Russell is a hoot playing the jolly old elf in the big red suit. It’s a hilarious bit of casting and it’s surprising just how well it works. While it’s Russell who steals the show, “The Christmas Chronicles” puts most of its focus on a struggling Massachusetts family.

Co-producer Chris Columbus is no stranger to Christmas films (“Home Alone”, “Home Alone 2”, “Christmas with the Kranks”, “Jingle All the Way”). Here he teams with animator turned director Clay Kaytis. Their film follows a brother and sister whose relationship has soured since the death of their father.

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For Kate (Darby Camp) and her older brother Teddy (Judah Lewis), life at home was a joy especially during Christmas time. Their fireman father (Oliver Hudson) was a fountain of Christmas cheer that always overflowed to his wife Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) kids. But when he is killed in the line of duty his family begins to crack under the weight of grief.

That’s pretty much the setup for what is the bulk of the story. Kate and an disinterested Teddy craft a plan to catch Santa in the act of delivering his goodies. Things don’t exactly go as planned and (as is often the case in these things) their actions unintentionally threaten to derail Christmas. But after meeting Santa face-to-face, the three join up to try and save the night before it’s too late.

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Don’t be mistaken, there is still the sentimental sappiness you expect from these types of movies. Not the Hallmark Channel variety (thank goodness). But the kind that flows from the insatiable yuletide spirit the majority of these movies embrace. As a festive person I’ll admit this usually works for me. But I can see where certain Scrooges in the audience might not be as forgiving.

“The Christmas Chronicles” is a fun, spry holiday movie that should fit nicely onto your Christmastime watchlist. Just don’t go in expecting it to break new ground. It’s predictable and it strikes nearly every familiar Christmas movie chord. At the same time it has an undeniable charm not to mention it’s a little bizarre. I mean Kurt Russell Santa on the lam for grand theft auto? Who wouldn’t watch that?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Clemency” (2019)

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Chinonye Chukwu’s upcoming film “Clemency”channels a lot of information through its opening shot. We see Bernadine Williams, the warden of a maximum security prison, on her way to oversee a execution by lethal injection. She walks with steadying confidence yet her eyes reveal something different. Bernadine is burdened and her job’s psychological toll is evident.

“Clemency” is the second film releasing in the next few weeks dealing with the death penalty (the other being Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy”). Chukwu’s film looks at it through the eyes of Bernadine who is played by Alfre Woodard. It’s a powerful and emotionally layered performance that gives us a window into the process while also offering a character study of a woman so tightly wound that she could blow at any second.

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© 2019 Neon Pictures All Rights Reserved

The opening scene uncoils in a truly visceral way and the impact of it reverberates throughout the remainder of the film. With an icy cold professionalism and a by-the-books approach Bernadine orders her officers through each step of a young man’s execution. She puts on a good show. You can see she’s done this a dozen times before and she knows the procedure like the back of her hand. But when the execution is botched it reveals a crack in her facade which only becomes more pronounced as the story moves forward.

Bernadine’s position as warden doesn’t allow for her to wrestle with any feelings or emotions. She has to be ready for the next execution (in this case a young death row inmate named Anthony Woods played by Aldis Hodge). So it’s her relationship with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) that ends up taking the brunt of her aloofness. “I need a pulse” he pleads realizing their marriage is on life support. But Bernadine quietly crumbles before his and our eyes, trapped in a personal hell and completely unable to convey her feelings. “I am alone, and nobody can fix it” she painfully affirms.

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© 2019 Neon Pictures All Rights Reserved

Chukwu (working as both writer and director) uses Woods and his desperate attempts at clemency to dig deeper into Bernadine’s poorly-veiled misery. Several others around her are retiring, worn down by the weight of their jobs, including the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill) and even Woods’ attorney (Richard Schiff). But Bernadine resists, unwilling to walk away from her job and all the work it took to get it, especially as an African-American woman.

“Clemency” is a movie full of brutally honest moments, and so many of them are also the quietest. Chukwu will often allow her camera to sit and observe her characters, carefully framing her shot and then trusting the performances to do the rest. It’s why having Alfre Woodard is such a strength. She’s able to convey so much feeling in a simple stare. And in a movie with this much heavy material, that kind of lead performance is priceless.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Curse of La Llorona”

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I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow I had not realized that “The Curse of La Llorona” was considered a part of the Conjuring universe? Clearly someone wasn’t paying attention. And it’s funny because I’m generally a fan of the tethered horror franchise specifically the two proper “Conjuring” films. The side movies have been inconsistent but still entertaining.

“The Curse of La Llorona” was the sixth installment in the ever-expanding Warner Bros. horror-verse (there has been a seventh film since). It also marks the feature film directorial debut for Michael Chaves who is also directing next year’s “The Conjuring 3”. The film is based on the actual Mexican folktale of The Weeping Woman. According to the legend a mother drowned her two children and then herself in a jealous rage after her husband left her for a younger woman. As a result she is cursed and her spirit roams the earth looking for children to replace hers.

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Following a brief introduction to the legend, the movie sits down in 1973 Los Angeles. The often underrated Linda Cardellini plays Anna, a widowed mother of two and a child services case worker. She’s asked to do a welfare check after the children of a client (Patricia Velasquez) are reported missing. Once there, Anna finds the two kids locked in a closet and their distraught mother who claims she is protecting them from La Llorona.

I won’t spoil how it happens but La Llorona switches her sights to Anna’s children (played by Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). The rest of the film features Anna getting a grasp of the terror they’re facing and protecting her kids from the violent apparition decked out in billowing white lace and with a ghoulish ashy face that could have been copied and pasted straight from “The Nun”.

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“La Llorona” is frustrating mainly because it starts out pretty strong. It puts its pieces in place through a nifty setup with real horror potential. But then it does what the weaker of the Conjuring spin-offs do – leans way too heavily on obvious horror movie conventions. You know, jump scares, squeaky doors, wide-eyed people slow-walking through a dark house at night (just turn the lights on people).

There is a brief but neat appearance by a someone who links this film to another from the franchise. But we also get a character who feels off from the first moment we meet him. Raymond Cruz plays this excommunicated priest turned shaman who Anna seeks out for help. The character has the personality of a plank of wood and his dry, monotone dialogue doesn’t help. He adds to the overall generic feel of the film’s second half. And again, what a shame. “La Llorona” gets off on the right foot and Cardellini does what she can. But it’s yet another Conjuring installment built on a promising idea but with execution that feels all too familiar.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Countdown” (2019)

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It took a while, but it looks like we’re finally getting the killer smartphone app horror movie we’ve been waiting for. Okay, so maybe I’m being a little facetious, but with a movie like “Countdown” it’s kind of hard not to be. It’s one of those films that easily belongs on the more absurd side of the horror genre.

The idea is that a smartphone app called Countdown claims to be able to predict the date and time of your death right down to the second. Of course it instantly becomes popular with droves of unwitting teens, twenty-somethings and other soon-to-be killer fodder. The prologue starts it up with a group of partying kids downloading Countdown as part of their drinking game. Needless to say the app proves to be deadly accurate (see what I did there).

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The movie then pivots to a nursing intern named Quinn (Elizabeth Lail). She and her co-workers jokingly download the app which gives her only three days left to live. She’s quick to dismiss it at first but several things change her mind namely terrifying visions that seem to be foreshadowing her impending demise. Well, they’re terrifying to her. For us they are simply a collection of tried-and-not-so-true jump scares.

Quinn tries the obvious, deleting the app, but with no success. And somehow buying a new phone through a new service provider doesn’t work (I still haven’t figured out the silly rules behind that one). As she slowly unravels she meets Matt (Jordan Calloway) who is trying to escape the same fate and she learns her sister (Talitha Bateman) is in the same boat.

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“Countdown” is written and directed by Boston native Justin Dec whose previous credits include several film shorts and a web series. Here he tries to compensate for the rather lightweight horror by cramming in a half-baked workplace sexual harassment storyline and some old family baggage neither of which is all that compelling. Even with those things the characters are paper-thin andgeneric. The worst is a priest (P. J. Byrne) Quinn seeks out for help. He may be the worst character you see in a film this year.

Remember the 2017 film “Happy Death Day”? It was a horror movie built on a wacky premise but with plenty of self-awareness and black comedy to make it a lot of fun. “Countdown” could have worked if it had done something similar. Instead it takes an even more preposterous premise and gives it the super-serious treatment from the start all the way through its cheap sequel tease at the end. But if nothing else at least it instills one piece of life-changing wisdom to smartphone owners everywhere – ALWAYS read the user agreement!

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars

Denzel Day #3 – “Courage Under Fire” (1996)

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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.

When it hit theaters in July of 1996 “Courage Under Fire” was Hollywood’s first big movie about the Persian Gulf War. But it was far from what could be perceived as a run-of-the-mill war picture. Combat served as a narrative backdrop for what is more accurately a military mystery. It’s one man’s search for the truth and how his personal state of mind depends on being able to tell it to someone…anyone.

In 1996 Denzel Washington was already in top form, here playing Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling. The film opens with him leading a tank platoon into combat just outside of Baghdad. In the chaos of war Serling gives the order to fire on a tank his spotter (Sean Astin) identifies as an enemy but which turns out to be a friendly. US soldiers are killed, the Army covers it up, and Serling is given a desk job at the Pentagon.

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Serling works under General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty) who knows the truth but is intent on keeping it under wraps. He gives Serling a new assignment – to run an inquiry on the recommendation to award the Medal of Honor to a female helicopter pilot killed in the line of duty. Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) would be the first woman to receive the honor and the White House is giddy over the optics of a big televised Rose Garden ceremony.

But as Serling begins carrying out what should be a routine inquiry, he immediately notices discrepancies in the testimonies from the soldiers who survived the incident where Walden lost her life. Unable to bear the burden of another cover-up, Serling sets out to find the truth amid intense pressure from Hershberg and the White House to wrap up his investigation quickly and quietly.

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Director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan do a remarkable job with some pretty tricky material. As Serling interviews the soldiers flashbacks capture their perspectives of the events leading to Walden’s death. The filmmakers deftly handle these transitions both narratively and visually. Duncan’s script is full of strategically revealed detail and information while Zwick gives it visual form through the lens of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins.

There is also a smart and humanizing personal side to the story. Throughout the film we see Serling still haunted by his experience on the battlefield and the truth he knows that needs to be told. He has nightmares, his drinking is out of control, and the stress has driven a wedge between him and his wife (a really good Regina Taylor) and children. His investigation is a way to occupy his mind and keep him from coping.

Washington is truly the linchpin of the film displaying his signature charisma and a subtle intensity that seeps out into every scene. Yet he’s always under control even as his character is emotionally crumbling. Meg Ryan is also quite good. Her tough girl military jargon isn’t always convincing but the variations within her performance certainly are. She’s asked to act out the same scenario several times but each from a different person’s point of view.

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Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips are both fantastic as soldiers with very different recollections of Walden and what happened to her. Scott Glenn is a good fit playing a former Ranger but now Washington Post reporter who knows Serling and the Army are covering up what took place on the battlefield near Baghdad.

“Courage Under Fire” is a military drama that delves into an assortment of interesting themes from the deep personal costs of war to women in combat. Its central mystery is compelling even though it takes some time before we finally get to the truth. And even though the emotion is pretty thick in the final 15 minutes it still feels earned.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars