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4 1/2 Stars Movies

Nomadland (2020)

When it comes to name recognition, it seems like the third time is definitely the charm for director Chloe Zhao.

While I have yet to see her debut film (2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me), I did manage to see her second film, The Rider (2017), the story of a young cowboy recovering from a near fatal accident and needing to find a new path in life. It takes more than one movie or so to discover a director’s true voice, but Zhao certainly is going down the path of intimate film making (it also helps that her first two movies were written by Zhao), which is more than evident in her third feature Nomadland.

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4 Stars Movies

The Way Back (2020)

To describe the career of Ben Affleck as “varied” would almost be an understatement.

After making it in the spotlight by winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (with his good friend Matt Damon) for 1997’s Good Will Hunting, he stretched into the “Razzie” territory with films like 1998’s Armageddon (which Affleck has comically given his own thoughts on), Pearl Harbor (2001), and 2003’s mega dud Gigli.

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4 Stars Movies

One Night in Miami (2020)

Pulling off a directorial debut is something I imagine is far from easy for most people.

You need a cast and crew that not only trusts you, but is also talented in their line of work. True, actors who turn directors more than likely pick up some tricks from others they have worked for in the past, though the great teacher known as experience is something yet to be obtained. Perhaps most important, the story they want to tell has to be not only possible to film, but personal to them.

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Movies

Why I will not be cancelling Netflix

When thinking of companies that have been thriving during the tumultuous year of 2020, very few (if any) come to mind before Netflix. 

While others like Hulu and Disney Plus are indeed doing well, it is Netflix that is undoubtably the name we think of first when we think of streaming movies (as well as TV shows) at home. This was until they got a big hit in culture last week when they released the French Indie film Cuties.

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3 1/2 Stars Movies

Tenet (2020)

In short, if you were confused too much by Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) a decade ago, then his new film Tenet is not for you.

Watching the first hour or so of Tenet is like walking slowly into the ocean, unaware that the floor beneath you is not as flat or reliable as you would like (such as in a pool). 

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4 Stars Movies

Crip Camp (2020)

For nearly a decade, I have truly been blessed with the seven summers I was able to spend a week of being a counselor at a Christian Youth Camp.

The memories are indeed too many: Small group bible lessons, archery, paintball, inside jokes about having too much bread (Wade and Hudson know), starlight devos, my alarm clock being thrown out by my co-counselor, sacrificing a pair of socks for a camper, out door movie nights, having another camper ask if I knew how to talk to girls (my initial response: “No one does.”), the countless nicknames I would give and be given (“The Cap” is the best nickname I have ever gotten).

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4 1/2 Stars Movies

First Cow (2020)

What makes a movie “too slow”?

If you have not asked yourself this question, you most certainly will while watching First Cow. Indeed, you will be doing so in the first minute or so of the film, where director Kelly Reichardt gives us a one take shot of a massive cargo ship making its way across the water. She lets you know off the bat the pacing of the movie.

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Movies

2020 Intermission

Here in Illinois, today marks the day of Phase 4. For me, that means the opening of (some) of the movie theaters in the state. Since new releases won’t start until mid to late July (at the earliest), these theaters are simply showing 2020’s pre-pandemic releases as well as some old classics (I plan on going next week to see me some Indiana Jones on the big screen).

Most of the movies of the first half of 2020 have been on streaming services, and have easily been missed by cinephiles such as myself. That said, I wanted to do a small recap of the films I have seen so far.

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2 1/2 Stars Movies

Onward (2020)

Coming up this November will be the quarter century mark of the release of Toy Story (1995), which was the birth of Disney/Pixar (though Pixar had done some of the animated shorts beforehand). Having seen all but two of their full length films (2015’s The Good Dinosaur and 2017’s Cars 3 got past my radar), the quality of the films of Disney/Pixar have nearly always been able to exceed all expectations, despite how high they may have been. With very few “duds” to their credit (most of the non-Toy Story sequels and Brave), the combined duo shows no sign of stopping, even if they make films of lesser quality. Which, sadly, brings us to Onward.

The brief history of magical creatures states that magic has been nearly lost and almost forgotten. While magic once thrived, scientific discovery had replaced it. Still, there are a few who still believe it exists, mainly the over eager Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt). After the death of his magic loving dad (because this is Disney, so the one parent rule is almost always in effect), he tries his darndest to be somewhat of an influence to his younger teenage brother Ian (Tom Holland).

As the film begins on his 16th birthday, the somewhat introverted Ian tries to stay somewhat distant from his much more extroverted older brother. That is, until his mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in her second Disney/Pixar film since A Bug’s Life) reveals a present to be given to both her sons when they turned sixteen. It is a staff, which will be able to bring there dad back (with the help of a rare phoenix stone their dad gave them as well) for one day. Unfortunately, trouble with the spell brews (pun intended?), and only the legs of their dad appear. They must then set forth on a quest to find another phoenix stone if they wish to see their whole dad before the 24 hour spell is over. Along the way in his (somewhat) trusty van Gwinivere, Barley passes on his knowledge of magic to his brother (who we discover is the one with magical abilities).

Compared to other films in the Pixar canon, there seems to be fewer supporting characters that stick out. The ones that do include a manticore (Octavia Spencer), Laurel’s new boyfriend cop, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), and some hard headed (and often funny) motorcycle pixies. And yes, we still get the Disney/Pixar treasured voice of John Ratzenberger, but it was so brief I admit I missed it.

There is also one (very minor) character, Officer Spector (Lena Waithe), who is officially the first openly gay character in a Disney/Pixar film. Sadly, this is more politicized than memorable. If you are going to include a homosexual character (in general, not just in animation), make it needed in the story itself. If Spector had not mentioned she was gay (though she does not use those exact words), I doubt it would make any difference to the outcome of the film.

The idea of being able to spend time with a dead loved one is indeed moving, but the way they established it seems just…awkward. I can understand the filmmakers wanting to add a twist of some kind, but just the legs? Yes, they find a way to communicate (somewhat) with them, but it just seems not as original or daring an idea that would expect from the studio.

Speaking of originality, when Disney/Pixar is at the top of their game, they give us worlds of endless possibilities. They have created countless universes with toys, bugs, monsters, cars, superheroes (even before the MCU), robots, emotions (!), and rats in the kitchen. Very few studios can say they have done something like that (save for Studio Ghibli).

That said, the universe of the creatures of Onward seems like it is from the minor leagues. Through out the film, I seriously had to remind myself I was watching a Disney/Pixar film, and not something from a lesser quality studio (I won’t name examples, but even the heads of other studios have to admit they have to almost always compete with Disney/Pixar).

Parents, the film is okay for kids provided you plan to have a conversation about the lesbian character, but I do admit I think the humor for the adults will be harder to find than it was in other Disney/Pixar films.

The deeper issues with being able to talk to a deceased family member did hit me at times (having lost my own dad a little less than a decade ago), but not as much as it could have. Consider the other great touching moments in the history of Disney/Pixar: Andy saying goodbye to his toys, WALL-E not recognizing EVE, Boo realizing (at the time) she won’t see Sully again, Miguel singing to Coco, the goodbye at the end of Toy Story 4, and, of course, the first ten minutes of Up. I would argue these (as well as moments which would produce “happy tears”) are groundbreaking moments for a child’s life as a movie goer (and some adults as well).

Disney/Pixar will, I am confident, still produce classics in the years to come (they have another film this year called Soul, which does look promising), but they need to remember to go Onward before going upward.

Overall:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Categories
1 Star Movies

Dolittle (2020)

As I get older and see more movies, I realize that nostalgia cannot always work for movies I liked as a kid. Sure, some movies are classics and speak to the child in all of us (The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, E.T., and a number of Disney films), but some are sadly ones we look back on and wonder, “What was I thinking?!?!”. I recently revisited the original first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies from the early 90s, and while the first one is still passable, the second one (the one with Vanilla Ice) is now just laughable. I predict kids who see Dolittle will say the same thing if they choose to revisit it as an adult, since any adults these days who are forced to see it will do what they can to forget it (even more so for the adults who were part of the film).

Back in 1967, the titular role of Doctor Dolittle (unseen by me) was played by theater great Rex Harrison. In the late 1990s, it was Eddie Murphy (the first was enjoyable to me as a kid, but I stopped caring after the second sequel). Now the role is in the hands of Robert Downey Jr. (in his first role after leaving the MCU). Set in the 19th century, we learn in an animated prelude (which was very well animated, and one of the few things of the film I actually was fine with) that his wife Lily (Kasia Smmutniak) is an adventurer who has died at sea. Understandably depressed, Dolittle has secluded himself in his mansion (that was once paid for by the Queen) in isolation. One day, a boy named Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) is out hunting with his family, though very unwillingly so. When he purposely misses shooting ducks, he hits a squirrel. Rather than put it out of its misery, he stumbles upon the Dolittle mansion.

At this point, we encounter one of the films many problems. We first see Dolittle talking to the animals as any human would: using animal sounds. We get a close up of him, and it changes to him speaking normally to the animals who now speak clear English to him as well. There is no consistancy in the communication between the doctor and the animals.

At the same time that Stubbins drops in, we meet Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who has been sent to deliver disturbing news: Queen Victoria (Jesse Buckley) has fallen ill. When the Doctor arrives, we discover the only known cure is from a mystical island that Dolittle’s late wife was looking for as she perished.

There is also a side plot involving Dolittle’s father in law, who blames the Doctor for Lily’s death. The father in law (named Rassouli, a name I don’t remember being uttered but it was on wiki so I guess it works) is played by the just recently Oscar nominated Antonio Banderas.

Wait, there is another side plot I forgot involving Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen). A former classmate of Dolittle’s, Mudfly is summoned by Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent, another wonderful actor who I had to find his character name on wiki) to make sure Dolittle & Company fail and that the Queen dies (not sure why they wanted the Queen to die, but whatever). There are no points given in finding out right away that Mudfly is the bad guy. In fact, points should be taken away if you did not know that.

If you thought the cast I have mentioned so far is a waste of talent, wait till you hear who the animals are voiced by. Emma Thompson is a wise parrot (as well as the films narrator). Rami Malek is a kind but not so confident Gorilla. Tom Holland is a loyal dog with glasses (for some reason). Octavia Spencer is a duck. Ralph Fiennes is a tiger. Selena Gomez is a giraffe. Marion Cotillard is a fox (with only a few lines). Finally, Kumail Nanjiani is the ostrich who becomes friends with Yoshi the Polar Bear, played by John Cena.

While none of these actors are untalented, they fail because of the script they are given (which is also mind boggling, when you remember that the film’s director and co-writer Stephen Gaghan wrote movies like Traffic and Syrianna, admittedly two vastly different films).

As stated, the film is set in the 19th Century, but the animals are all talking like they are from the 21st. I understand that it is to appeal more to children, but the theater I was in (which did not have many, thought it was a 5pm show on a thursday) had virtually zero laughs from the adults. As for the kids (maybe two or so in the audience), I think I heard three laughs tops.

There is actual detrimental material here for kids, because we have all encountered wild animals at one point or another in our lives. Whether it be a close pet we chat with or a squirrel we honk our horn at to move out of the way. We like to think we are talking with them.

When I get home from work, there is always a nice welcome for me from my dog, Molly (the newer dog, Charlie, is another matter). There is a weird sense of appreciation we get from pets that makes us want to talk to them. Animals (especially pets) help take us out of our daily lives and remember the natural elements of the world.

Parents, if all you are worried about is violence/sexuality/swearing, you are fine. There is none of that here (even the wounded squirrel, who took a shotgun blast to the chest, was not bleeding). The one exception is the post credit scene, where a character is surrounded by bats. While it is played for laughs, I think it would generally scare children.

Though I am not a parent, I would still argue that this movie is not engaging or smart enough for any child over the ages of 5-6. It is as if the filmmakers forgot that kids in a movie theater are actually smarter than they realize.

Dolittle also is unclear on its message. At first, I thought it would be on how to be kind to animals (after all, God did tell Noah to have two of every kind on the ark). The film just became about an adventure that no one asked for.

Somehow, Dolittle did give me a feeling I never expected.

A feeling of nostalgia.

…for the movie CATS.

Overall:

Rating: 1 out of 5.