REVIEW: “Dolittle” (2020)

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On one hand “Dolittle” seemed like the kind of family movie primed for success. It was based on a once beloved children’s book series. It featured talking animals, a grand adventure, an enormous and talented cast, along with a popular lead actor known for his charisma and wit. On the other hand there were causes for concern – numerous delays and development woes, a so-so first trailer, and of course the dreaded January release date.

It turns out the box office wasn’t kind to “Dolittle”. It fell well short of its break-even estimates. Critic reactions haven’t been much better (it currently sits at an abysmal 15% on Rotten Tomatoes). So the movie along with its $175 million budget sank fast as did its obvious franchise aspirations.

It’s a shame because the very idea of Dr. Dolittle is the kind of childlike fantasy that almost any youngster can latch onto. History proves it. Creator Hugh Lofting wrote over twenty books and short stories based on the animal loving eccentric. There have been stage musicals, a radio series, television shows, and movie adaptations. But this latest effort from director Stephen Gaghan never seems sure-footed in its vision or execution.

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Photo: Universal Pictures

Robert Downey, Jr. stars and it’s hard to tell just how engaged he really is. He soaks his dialogue in a funky Welsh/Scottish accent that you eventually get used to despite it never sounding quite right. Set in the mid-19th century, the movie starts with the good doctor in full recluse mode: shaggy, unkept, and brokenhearted following the death of the love his life Lily. Unable to cope, he has shut himself off from humanity, choosing to stay confined in his walled-in estate/animal sanctuary. Fluent in every form of animal-speak, Dolittle chooses to spend his time with his furry, feathered and four-legged friends rather than those pesky humans.

His closed-off existence is rattled when two young teens seek his help for much different reasons. A tenderhearted local boy Stubbins (Harry Collett) brings a squirrel in desperate need of medical attention. The cause – Stubbins accidentally shot it himself. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), an emissary from the gravely ill Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley), brings a message summoning Dolittle to the dying royal’s bedside. The Doctor reluctantly agrees and after examining his Majesty surmises that the only cure comes from the fruit of the mysterious far-away Eden Tree. But finding it will be no easy task.

So Dolittle sets sail to find the tree but first he rounds up his amazing zoo crew voiced by a star-studded group of Academy Award winners, comedians, wrestlers, and singers. Emma Thompson plays a Macaw, Rami Malek a gorilla, Kumail Nanjiani an ostrich (my favorite), Octavia Spenser a duck, Tom Holland a studious dog, John Cena a polar bear, Marion Cotillard a fox, Selena Gomez a giraffe, and so on. And tagging along against the Doc’s wishes, young Stubbins who is determined do be Dolittle’s new apprentice.

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Photo: Universal Pictures

Hot on their heels is Dr. Blair Müdfly, an old rival of Dolittle with a vested interest in the Queen’s condition. He’s played by a wildly over-the-top Michael Sheen who does provide a much needed laugh or two. He’s rarely funny as a result of the material. It’s comes mostly from simply watching Sheen and his wacky, neurotic delivery. It certainly provides more laughs than the animal banter (which we get a TON of). Outside of Nanjiani, whose laidback pessimism lands well, none of chatter leaves much of an impression. The voice work is good, the dialogue – not so much.

“Dolittle” isn’t a total disaster. Downey, Jr. has an infectious manic energy and the actor’s inherent likability is an asset. The CGI is generally well done including the many animals and the locations. And later we get Antonio Banderas as an evil Jack Sparrow-like king along with his ferocious tiger played by Ralph Fiennes. How could that be bad? But none of it can make up for for the movie’s biggest issue – its lack of any emotional resonance. You can count on one hand (and have fingers to spare) how many times the movie actually shows some form of feeling.

The similarities between “Dolittle” and the original 1967 movie adaption are striking. That film starred Rex Harrison in what was (as with Downey, Jr.) a peculiar choice for him. Its plethora of production issues have been well-documented plus it too ended up taking a beating at the box office. While “Dolittle” might be a slightly better movie than Harrison’s mess, it’s still hard not to see this as a sad case of history repeating itself.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Disturbing the Peace” (2020)

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I make no bones about it, I love Guy Pearce and have always considered him to be underrated and underappreciated. He’s a talented actor who has tackled a broad and impressive range of roles throughout his 30 year career. Sure, a handful of his movies have wildly missed their mark, but none quite as badly as his latest “Disturbing the Peace”. How he got wrangled into this sure-fire early candidate for the worst movie of 2020 is beyond me.

This small indie action flick from director York Alex Shackleton feels yanked from a different era and I don’t say that as a compliment. Everything about “Disturbing the Peace” feels outdated: the story, the dialogue, the characters. Even worse its budget restrictions are evident in practically every shot. From cringe-inducing supporting performances to production values on par with a bad high school play.

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Pearce deserves credit for at least giving it his all even though he isn’t asked to do much. He plays Marshal Jim Dillon (I’m not making this up), a former Texas Ranger still haunted by an accidental shooting that left his partner paralyzed from the neck down. That was ten years ago and Marshal Dillon now serves and protects the small Kentucky town of Horse Cave with his one deputy (Michael Sirow).

One day two roughneck bikers ride into town looking mean and stirring up trouble with Catie (Kelly Greyson), the owner of the local diner and the Marshal’s uninspired love interest. Soon the rest of the gang arrives led by the hilariously named Diablo (Devon Sawa) who waxes not-so-elegantly about Pavlov’s Dog and killing townsfolk basically in the same breath. And with henchmen names like Pyro, Spider and Big Dog you know these guys mean business. They hold the entire town hostage which is surprisingly easy considering the majority of the population shrinks to about ten people in the span of one scene.

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“Disturbing the Peace” is essentially a rural heist thriller minus the thrills and without a single character we can empathize with. The filmmakers make an attempt by throwing together several town locals hoping we’ll find some of them interesting. But you’ll remember them more for their excruciating line deliveries rather than anything of value they bring to the story. And you know what to expect when your second biggest cast member is Barbie Blank, aka ex-WWE wrestler Kelly Kelly (or was it Kelly Kelly Kelly). No offense to Ms. Blank, but….never mind.

None of the things that make “Disturbing the Peace” watchable are intentional. The cheap production, the cliche-riddled script, the laughably bad dialogue. Even Guy Pearce can’t make us buy some of his lines and his MacGyver-styled action is an even harder sell. He seems utterly bored throughout the entire proceedings which is completely understandable. Nothing about the movie is even remotely original and it wasn’t for the accidental hilarity it would be a tough 90 minutes to endure.

VERDICT – 1 STAR

1-star

REVIEW: “Doctor Sleep” (2019)

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I’ve never read Stephen King’s 1977 bestseller “The Shining” but I’m keenly aware of his displeasure with Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated movie adaptation. King’s dissatisfaction manifested itself through some instances of compelling criticism but also plenty of sour grapes. King even went as far as to release his own adaptation of his novel, an ABC mini-series, which sticks closer to his vision but doesn’t have near the following as Kubrick’s film.

In 2013 King penned “Doctor Sleep”, yet another bestseller and a sequel to “The Shining”. Warner Brothers instantly looked into bringing it to the big screen. Now six years later enter Mike Flanagan – writer, director, editor, and the brave soul willing to tackle such an audacious undertaking. Flanagan sets out to make a film that connects both King and Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” while continuing their story. It’s exciting to see that he is up to the task.

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“Doctor Sleep” opens only a few years after the traumatizing events of the first film. Young Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mother Wendy have relocated to Florida but he is still haunted by specters from The Overlook Hotel including the woman rotting away in Room 237 (surely you remember her). Through his telepathic powers that come with having ‘the Shine’, Danny is contacted by the Outlook’s former head chef Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) who teaches him how fend off the evil spirits.

That small opening does a good job of bringing us back to and planting our feet in King and Kubrick’s world. It immediately taps into the tone that Kubrick’s film developed and managed so well while also establishing the strong supernatural angle which was important to King and was one of his big points of criticism with Kubrick’s version of his story.

Jump ahead 31 years later. Danny (a perfectly cast Ewan McGregor), or Dan now, is still wrestling with his abilities and his attempts to suppress them has led to a life of self-destruction and alcoholism. Essentially homeless and with his life in shambles, Dan hops a bus and eventually gets off at a small New Hampshire town where a sympathetic local (Cliff Curtis) helps him get his feet on the ground. He finds a good job, joins an AA group, and even discovers a quiet but thoughtful use for his abilities.

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So far so good, but now we get to the film’s ace in the hole – Rebecca Ferguson. The English-Swedish actress steals the show playing Rose, the leader of a gypsy-like vampiric cult called the True Knot. She and her supernatural sect hunt down and literally feed on the ‘shine’ of gifted children. But they’re starving which makes them even more desperate and more dangerous.

Ferguson owns every scene she’s in and imbues her character with a seductive charm but also a blood-curdling menace. Flanagan wisely gives her plenty of meaty scenes that help develop her and her group as a truly terrifying (and mesmerizing) threat. Many of the movie’s most memorable moments feature Rose with her icy confidence and chilling callousness. She’s a great character brought to life through a great performance.

Dan crosses telepathic paths with a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) whose ‘shine’ is off the charts. Rose senses Abra’s immense power which puts the child’s life in immediate danger. Dan is then faced with a dilemma. If he doesn’t get involved he’ll be able to protect the good and stable life he finally has going for himself. But of course Abra will probably die. If he helps her, he runs the risk of losing everything and his own ‘shine’ will almost certainly be exposed. But in doing so he could potentially save her life. Decisions.

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I really like “The Shining” despite not quite seeing it as the horror movie masterpiece many do. Still, there is a fascinating pull towards the story and characters that I can’t deny. “Doctor Sleep” builds on that in a incredibly satisfying way. Aside from Flanagan’s impressive balancing act in bringing together King and Kubrick’s visions, I love the attention that he gives to the people on screen. The movie has a hefty running time but it’s in large part due to the story never taking shortcuts and offering up plenty of rich character details.

It’s also refreshing to see a horror film give the fullness of its genre focus to mood and tone instead of jump scares which have become commonplace. In fact “Doctor Sleep” seems to be pushing back on what you could call the horror movie norms of our day. It feels unique and plays out differently than what we’ve become accustomed to. In a nutshell, it’s a very mature slice of horror that is heavily focused on its characters and trusts in its ability to create frights and tension without resorting to gimmicks. I know it really worked for me.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

Denzel Day #4 : “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995)

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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.

In his near forty years of big screen acting Denzel Washington has amassed a broad and diverse filmography. Out of his forty-seven movies (so far) I finally caught up with one that I’ve rarely heard talked about. As it turns out “Devil in a Blue Dress” is a saucy bit of pulpy noir that took no time getting its hooks in me.

Carl Franklin wrote and directed the film which was based on Walter Mosley’s mystery novel of the same name. The book was the first in a series that focused on the character Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a post-war era laborer turned unwitting private detective. Franklin’s adaptation burrows deep into the book’s noir setting and brings out the genre’s richness of atmosphere and tone. Unfortunately the movie bombed at the box office which killed any chance of a possible followup.

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A superbly cast and well-rounded Denzel Washington takes on the role of Easy Rawlins, Texas born but now living in 1948 Los Angeles. He moved to Southern California after the war when work on the coast was plentiful. But times have gotten tougher and he loses his job at an aviation factory. Already behind on his mortgage, Easy listens to an offer from a shady tough guy named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore). It should be an easy $100. All he has to do is track down a white woman named Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) and tell Albright where she is. Sounds easy enough but remember, this is noir so it’s never that simple.

Easy begins his search down Central Avenue since Daphne was known to frequent the jazz clubs in the predominantly black neighborhood. But in no time he finds himself caught up in layers upon layers of deception, blackmail and of course murder. What started up as a quick $100 ends up being far more than Easy bargained for. As things heat up he recruits his trigger-happy Texas sidekick Mouse (a scene-stealing Don Cheadle) to help him with the tangled sordid mess he’s gotten into.

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So much of Franklin’s film screams classic 50’s noir. We get the anti-hero private detective who serves as our window into the seedy and violent cinematic world. There is the beautiful yet mysterious femme fatale who clearly knows more than she’s letting on. And of course plenty of twists, double-crosses, and corruption. I could go on, but there is a unique flavor Franklin also brings that makes his film stand out. Through his more urban setting he is allowed to come at his story from a socially conscious perspective. He brings out themes of big city segregation, economic disparity, and more.

As “Devil in a Blue Dress” maneuvers its way through its taut and savvy mystery I found myself glued to its every twist and turn. I was just as captivated by Washington who already possessed that certain charisma and gravitas he would become known for. Here he takes a rich and compelling character and gives us a lived in and fully-realized portrayal. And in a career full of unforgettable performances, this may be one of his best.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Dead Don’t Die”

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From its first announcement I could see hipster filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” running into problems with two distinct audiences. I could see it being far too Jarmusch-like (weird, dry, and off-beat) for many modern day moviegoers. At the same time I figured many Jarmusch aficionados would find it too lightweight and mainstream when compared to the filmmaker’s past works.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Jarmusch and this film has all the ingredients to be one of my favorites of the year. And while there are several things I like about this wacky zombie satire, it never really gets its footing and it’s hard to see it as anything more than Jarmusch dabbling in a new genre. There are several things he seems to be attempting to say, but none of it has any bite and most of it feels shallow and even a bit smug.

The film takes place in the cozy little town of Centerville, population 738. The welcome sign even reads “A Real Nice Place” so what could go wrong? Jarmusch spends a lot of time taking us around to meet the idiosyncratic townsfolk. Few are given any depth and many are simply set up to eventually become zombie fodder. Order is kept by Police Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murry) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver). The two ride around town revealing the numerous locations we will be seeing again: the diner, the motel, the cemetery, the juvenile detention center, the gas station, and so on.

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A star-studded and totally game cast fill out Jarmusch’s haughty vision of middle America. Tilda Swinton is the Scottish samurai sword wielding undertaker. Steve Buscemi’s Farmer Miller is a Trump-supporting bumpkin. Caleb Landry Jones runs the gas station/geek memorabilia shop. Tom Waits is the shaggy and homeless town hermit. Danny Glover owns the hardware store. Larry Fessenden runs the Moonlight Motel. A few other faces are sprinkled throughout including a hipster threesome led by Selena Gomez who are passing through Centerville at the worst possible time.

So about the zombies. In Jarmusch’s world the zombie apocalypse isn’t spawned from a passing comet or a viral outbreak. Nope, instead polar fracking knocks the earth off its axis causing the day/night cycle to go haywire, animals to disappear, our phones to go out, and eventually the rise of the innard-eating dead. The citizens of Centerville certainly notice the changes, but they’re either too dense or too ensnared in Jarmusch’s deadpan trappings to make much of it. Their dry, puzzled responses make for some of the movie’s funnier moments.

Jarmusch movies are known for their mellow pacing and laconic dialogue as well as their unique ways of embracing human eccentricities. “The Dead Don’t Die” features all of those traits. The difference here is with how the film meanders at times with no discernible purpose. In his previous films Jarmusch was able to maintain a steady connection to his characters even during his most leisurely moments of storytelling. We never have any real connections to any of these characters. And Jarmusch doesn’t seem to be embracing the eccentricities as much as he is just making fun of them.

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That doesn’t mean all of our time spent with these characters is bad. Quite the opposite actually. But it’s mostly due to the performances more than the material. Easily the best scenes are the ones we spend with Driver and Murry. The two have a seamlessly funny chemistry and I found myself laughing without them saying a word. Chloë Sevigny is a great compliment playing Chief Cliff’s junior officer. The three of them together shouldn’t make any community feel safe but they’re plenty good at delivering laughs.

It’s also a hoot watching the supporting cast have fun with their characters regardless of how little depth they may have. Buscemi is able to mine some laughs out of a role that is strictly there for some fashionable but toothless MAGA bashing. Swinton can do ‘weird’ in her sleep and she gets the wackiest character of the bunch. And I really do love seeing Danny Glover popping up in these easy-going, low-key roles. Oh, and Iggy Pop credited as “Coffee Zombie” – magical.

So again, there are things to really enjoy about “The Dead Don’t Die”. When the humor lands well it can be pretty funny and it’s a blast seeing so many familiar faces (By the way, can we all agree that Adam Driver is one of the best and most diverse actors working today?). But sadly the whole thing comes across as aimless right up to its groan-worthy ending. There are several inside jokes and some pasted on commentary about us being the zombies clutching to our materialism and technology. But it has no bite whatsoever. So we’re left with the cast who are enough to save the film but just barely.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Death Proof”

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Quentin Tarantino’s weirdly audacious “Death Proof” is yet another example of the acclaimed filmmaker recapturing a slice of cinema history. This time he sets his sights on the old grindhouse theater experience. “Death Proof” released in theaters in 2007 as one-half of a schlocky B-movie twin-billing (Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” was the other film). This was common for the grindhouses that popped up throughout the 70’s but were mostly gone by the late 90’s.

For the most part grindhouse movies were cheaply made exploitation flicks, notorious for their low production value and bad print quality. “Death Proof” sees Tarantino attempting to capture two key facets of the genre. He writes his screenplay to resemble a bad movie you would see in those cut-rate theaters. But he puts just as much effort into making his film look and sound like it has been pulled from a time capsule. Crackling audio, grainy video, missing frames – it all makes for an eye-catching aesthetic which is inexplicably dropped around the midway point for no discernible reason at all.

“Death Proof” is a film of two halves. Both have striking similarities yet one is considerably stronger than the other. The first half starts with three friends Arlene, Shanna and Julia (Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, and Sydney Tamilia Portier) heading to a bar on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. There they meet up with Lanna (Monica Staggs) and the four begin their night of partying.

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Unfortunately for them they also meet a grizzled Hollywood stuntman appropriately named Stuntman Mike (a fantastic Kurt Russell). He’s an odd bird with a clear affection for menacing muscle cars and messy nachos. He takes notice of the young women in the bar and after a handful of snappy back-and-forths filled with Tarantino’s signature dialogue, the four friends drive off into the night. Unfortunately for them so does Stuntman Mike.

Up to this point “Death Proof” is hitting most of its marks. Aside from being fairly shallow and unashamedly trashy, Tarantino creates a cool blend of nostalgia and style that allows him to show off his inner film student. So much of what he does both technically and narratively hearkens back to the grindhouse genre. And his character work is equally effective. This is especially true for Russell who has a ton of fun in a role that seems custom-made for him.

If things ended there it would be a pretty satisfying foray into B-movie exploitation cinema. But there is the second half  and that is where the film’s momentum grinds to a halt. There is this weird transition that takes place both visually and from a story standpoint. Tarantino jumps ahead fourteen months and moves from Austin to Lebanon, Tennessee. He moves his focus to four new women played by Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Zoe Bell. They each work in the movie business (two of them stunt drivers) and are on break from a nearby film shoot.

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Unfortunately their story is pretty lightweight. Tarantino is never able to muster a reason for us to be interested in them aside from their no-nonsense, tough-as-nails personalities. This is perhaps best illustrated in a diner scene clearly influenced by “Reservoir Dogs” down to the way it’s shot. It’s a drawn-out dialogue-driven sequence that could have worked if the characters had anything interesting to say. It’s a real momentum killer.

We’re left hungering for their inevitable encounter with Stuntman Mike who once again has his eyes set a group of unsuspecting young women. The big difference here is that these women fight back. It leads to the much talked about finale featuring some impressive practical effects and classic stuntwork despite being utterly ridiculous. It makes for a mildly satisfying ending but nothing particularly memorable.

And that’s something that could be said about “Death Proof” as a whole. Despite it’s throwback cinema bells and whistles, a pretty good first half, and a really fun Kurt Russell performance, the movie ends up losing steam and the second half can’t maintain the spark of the first 45 minutes or so. It’s a shame because there are some fun, nostalgic ideas throughout. But they aren’t enough to keep Tarantino’s eyes on the road.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars