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Dolittle (2020)

Here’s the revelation of the new year: I didn’t hate Dolittle. In fact, I kind of admire it and mostly enjoyed it. Given the advertising, bad buzz, and mountain of critical pans, I was expecting very little from this movie, so perhaps it chiefly benefited from dramatically lowered expectations, but I feel comfortable going on the record in the Dolittle fan club. Robert Downey Jr. stars as the magical vet and adventurer who can speak with animals, and for the first 15 minutes or so, I was laughing at this movie and shaking my head. There’s a moment where Dolittle, a gorilla that just showed its backside while playing chess, and a duck are laughing uproariously in their own languages, and the moment holds awkwardly and it was so weird. After 15 minutes, I began to adjust to the movie’s wavelength and I began to appreciate how committed to being weird the movie was. This is not exactly a movie that aims for a safe broad mass appeal, even though it has familiar messages of family, acceptance of loss, and confronting personal fears. It takes chances on alienating humor. You could take any incident from this movie, including its finale that literally involves disimpacting a dragon’s clogged bowels, and on paper, without context, it would be the dumbest thing you could imagine. However, when thrown into a movie that never takes itself seriously, that is actively, almost defiantly being weird (a joke about a whale flipping off humans with its fin made me cackle), the things you might mock take on a new charm. Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan has worked in Hollywood for years and given the world Traffic and Syriana, so he knows his way around working within a studio system. Dolittle at times feels like a live-action Aardman movie with its anarchic spirit. Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame) bumbles and mumbles in a thick Welsh accent that he may regret but he’s fully committed. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) is a delight as a seafaring antagonist, and he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s part of. The animal CGI can be a little dodgy at times for a movie this expensive and not every jokey aside works but enough of them did to win me over. I’m under no illusions that a majority of people will just scoff at Dolittle and never give it a chance, and I thought I was ready to join their ranks, but then a funny thing happened when I sat down to watch the movie and accepted it on its own silly terms. I had fun, and I know there will be others that do as well. It may be a disaster to many but to me it’s a beautiful mess.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Life Itself (2018)

Under the thumb of writer/director Dan Fogelman (TV’s This Is Us), the lives of several inter-connected characters in Life Itself are bonded by a seemingly endless assembly of human tragedy. That’s life, he seems to say, but there’s also a lot of death here. There’s death by accident, death by suicide, death by cancer, parental abandonment, addiction, mental illness, let alone fleeting mentions of sexual abuse and incest. Throughout it all, the characters of Fogelman press onward, making whimsical observations about human existence and perception, some of which I don’t think are quite as profound as he may think. What does “life is an unreliable narrator” exactly mean? I understand the implication of unexpected twists and turns, but life is objective, it’s more a medium for events that others will impart differing perceptions… it doesn’t matter. We jump around through multiple chapters across generations, though it all looks like it takes place in the same five or so years, waiting for the final revelations of what connect these different people and their stories of heartache. Much of the story hinges on these connective revelations because a far majority of the characters have little characterization other than broad strokes. they are pieces meant to form a puzzle. Because of its ensemble nature, some storylines are just more interesting than others, and some characters are given more meaningful things to do onscreen. The film gets significantly better once we transition away from Oscar Isaac as an over-caffeinated smarty-pants reflecting about his pregnant ex-wife (Olivia Wilde). From there we go overseas to an olive ranch in Italy and Antonio Banderas, who uncorks a swell Spanish monologue to a man he wants to ingratiate into his family. Fogelman alternates his hearty doses of old melodrama with meta asides, some of which work like a grandfather-granddaughter sit-down where they express the verbose subtext out loud, and some of them do not, like Samuel L. Jackson appearing as a literal flesh-and-blood narrator. An ongoing diatribe about a Bob Dylan song from his 1997 comeback album also seems a strange student film-level pretentious linchpin. I liked individual performances, individual moments, but Life Itself cannot escape the smothering effect that Fogelman employs as a dramatist, trying to turn every moment into a mosaic he feels will gain beauty and clarity if he just keeps pulling further and further back to reveal the grand design. It wants us to take comfort in the big picture but the details are misery.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The 33 (2015)

MV5BMTkyNDY3NDc5NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzI1NDM1NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_The problem with a rescue story is how to keep the audience engaged when the end seems obvious. A movie about the rescued miners in Chile seems like a no-brainer when it comes to cinematic storytelling. Survival stories are naturally rife with conflict and human triumph. But when everybody knows the ending how do you make it count? The 33, a would-be feel-good movie that aims to tug at your heartstrings, is not the answer.

In August of 2010, 33 men went over a thousand feet down into a gold mine in Chile. The mountain caved in on top of itself, trapping the men in a small refuge. They had enough food and water to last only so many days, let alone enough to subsist 33 people. Mario (Antonio Banderas) must keep his fellow miners from breaking into violence, while Lawrence (Rodrigo Santoro) must scramble the forces of the government to retrieve the miners with the pressure of the entire world watching. The men spent over 65 harrowing days trapped underground before finally reuniting with their loved ones.

bb708602-6b97-4b4e-9a7b-ceb6245f00c7-bestSizeAvailableThe 33 misses widely, relying on easy sentiment and generalities rather than exploring its entombed characters on more than a fundamental level. Just because certain plot turns are expected from a keen audience, whether the Titanic is going down or, say, in another survival story that James Franco is going to cut his arm off, it doesn’t mean that the proceeding time is merely setup for the predictable. Even plot turns that are predictable can be wholly satisfying if the storytelling earns the payoff. Therefore, while the world knows that the 33 miners will eventually be rescued relatively unscathed, that doesn’t mean that the movie is off the hook until that moment. It needs to make the scene count, and the best way to do so is to get us emotionally invested in these men as they struggle with their fears. That is the film’s biggest failing. It was expected that 33 characters would be a tad unwieldy as far as divvying up screen time, so we concentrate on about five or six actual “characters,” while the rest of the trapped miners are glorified extras (they’re even listed in the end credits as Miner #8, Miner #9, etc. rather than by their names). The characters fall into rather one-note territories, from the Guy Who Feels He’s Let Down His Miners, the Guy Who Feels Burdened as the Leader, the Comical Relief Guy, the Old Guy Close to Retirement, The Young Guy with a Baby on the Way, the Recovering Addict with Trust Issues, and the New Guy (a.k.a. The Bolivian). Even though the cave-in occurs about 15 minutes into the movie, we don’t really get to know any of these highlighted characters on a deeper level than the basic descriptions they’re categorized with. It’s as if The 33 expects us to be engaged in the survival struggle without people worth watching.

The script divides its focus among a few camps, which further makes the miners feel less developed. Garnering substantial screen time are the minister of mining and his team of engineers and Maria Segovia (Juliette Binoche), an empanada-vendor who becomes the face of the anguished family members. These factions vie for screen time but they never truly present much more than what is on the surface. It’s a lot of pacing and brow-wiping. I’m puzzled at how little the movie makes use of the miners’ family members. This seems like a story made for flashbacks to help tinge the struggle with heavier dramatic weight and irony. The problem with The 33 is that the rescue story isn’t as interesting from a conflict standpoint because it’s more a matter of a race against time than a matter of logistics. Digging through the bed of rock is arduous but it’s nothing terribly unexpected from a technology standpoint. It doesn’t help that The Martian is a recent hit film and a superior movie survival story, at least in its telling. The focus was tighter and Matt Damon’s character was beset with conflict after conflict. He was an active participant to lead to his survival. In contrast, the miners are left to hold onto their sanity and hopes while they wait for extrication. That struggle can be illuminating on the psyche and how people can pull together in times of extreme distress, but that’s not this movie. Sure, they pull together but it’s mostly the occasional inspirational speech from Mario and the reliance on the emotional push of James Horner’s score (his last in life). The movie relies on easy sentiment to fill the many gaps of its characterization.

There is one standout moment in the movie that gives you enough false hope about where The 33 could have gone with its storytelling. As the men pass around their daily ration, a squirt of water with some tuna inside it, the men fantasize a feast of their favorite foods delivered lovingly by their family members. It’s an exquisite visual detour that succinctly communicates the desires of the men and their mental defenses. It’s powered by a lilting musical score that makes it feel like a divine moment of relief for these weary men, and it’s visually playful without going over the top or losing the emotional truth. Then, just as succinctly, it transitions back to the dreary reality with as much skill as it began. It’s a terrific moment in an otherwise safe and sappy movie, and the artistry hints at the more visually poetic and psychologically probing movie that could have been. Going back to 127 Hours, Franco was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place but director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) opened it up as a movie. The 33 is just too inert.

maxresdefaultIt may be slight but I can’t help but feel that the movie should have been told in Spanish rather than English. Now I know that English is going to greatly improve the movie’s mass appeal at the American box-office (though that didn’t seem to make a dent), but it harms the movie’s authenticity. On the contrary, I could forgive the white-washing of transforming the Spanish family into a white clan of Brits in the 2004 tsunami drama The Impossible but that was because their struggle was powerfully and universally felt and unrelated to ethnicity, which also assists in the argument of why change their ethnicity, but I digress. With The 33, the struggle is so specific to a nation and its people that there is some degree of authenticity lost in the actors speaking English in a multitude of accents meant to approximate Chilean. It’s also a bit strange to watch actors of varied backgrounds playing Chileans including a Frenchwoman (Binoche), an Irishman (Gabriel Byrne), and the warden from The Shawshank Redemption as the president of Chile. These are small things but when packaged together, and with the movie’s reliance on easy sentimentality, it’s hard not to feel like The 33 is a middling TV movie writ large.

The 33 is an acceptable story with a bevy of fine actors who give fine performances while we wait for the swell of the music to hit all the emotional highs. It’s effective at points and its heart seems to be in the right place, even giving each real-life member of the titular 33 a coda appearance before the credits (we’re told their lawsuit against the mining company apparently netted them zero money). The problem with The 33 is that it doesn’t make the men feel much more than a group of numbers, figures to eventually and predictably be saved, without giving us enough insight into their humanity. It feels like a disservice to their story and the compromises hobble its artistic latitude. It feels far too impersonal and rote, which are crippling attributes for a feel-good true story. It’s not fair but I fondly recall McFarland U.S.A. as a formulaic feel-good movie that nails its big moments while dropping its audience into a community of characters that feel fleshed out and given depth and relatability. If you want to know more about the Chilean miners, skip this movie and read the book. If you want a feel-good movie that genuinely makes you feel good, then skip The 33 and watch McFarland U.S.A instead.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Haywire (2012)

Haywire is director Steven Soderbergh’s experiment in the field of the action thriller, and it’s sparse and arty and pretty boring too. Soderbergh takes another non-actor, this time MMA fighter Gina Carano, and builds a spy thriller around the talents of this imposing fighter. Carano is no actor and her flat line delivery will routinely remind you of her limitations, but man alive does this woman just kick ass. To Soderbergh’s credit, the fight scenes occur in longer takes at a safe distance so that we the audience can watch and comprehend. Carano impresses as a physical specimen, both as a fighter and in other ways (she’s certainly got movie-star looks). I just wish this had been a more traditional action movie instead of Soderbergh’s jazzy, clinical genre experiment. There’s a handful of fights and a handful of chases, but mostly the plot is tied up in knots of who betrayed who and why. The dialogue volume is also curiously kept at a very low level, which obscures many conversations (I was forced to turn on the subtitles just to keep up). The plot itself is such a familiar rehash so why doesn’t Soderbergh pump it with more action? A bevy of stars appear in this thing (Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum) but gives them precious little to do. Unless Haywire is in fight mode, it’s a rather soggy bore. The minimalism in a genre known for bombast is commendable but when that minimalism also stretches into plot and character and pacing, then you’ve entered into another Soderbergh indie experiment. For my money, Haywire is too sparse, too generic, and too dull to recommend, but I’d love to see more of Carano cracking skulls.

Nate’s Grade: C

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty) wrote, directed, produced, photographed, edited, and scored Once Upon a Time in Mexico. I’’m sure if you look further this jack-of-all-trades also provided coffee and donuts. Coming off his third Spy Kids feature, Rodriguez seems like the hardest working man in showbiz. Mexico, a sequel to 1995’’s Desperado, is one tasty burrito of stylish action, vigorous energy and the immensely appealing Johnny Depp.

Depp stars as Sands, an amoral CIA agent who calls Mexico his beat. Through the help of a one-eyed flunky (Cheech Marin), he recruits a mysterious gunman, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), to thwart a coup being lead by Marquez, a military general, and paid for by a drug cartel run by Barillo (Willem Dafoe, a.k.a. the Creepiest Man Alive). Then there’s also a retired FBI Agent (Ruben Blades) looking to settle a personal score with Barillo, a Federale (Eva Mendes) looking for some action, a nasty hired gun (Danny Trejo) itching to off a certain Mariachi, Mickey Rourke with a Chihuahua, Enrique Iglesias with a mole, and also the fact that Marquez, who Banderas has been assigned to kill, murdered Banderas’ wife (Salma Hayek) and daughter. I’ll stop so you can catch your breath. Ready? Okay.

You better think ahead and bring a second pair of pants because Depp will charm them right off as he plays yet another oddball. We are delighted with Sands and his multitude of fake mustaches, tacky T-shirts (one actually says “CIA”) and method of paying people through cash-filled nostalgic lunch boxes. Despite plotting near a Machiavellian level and shooting innocent chefs, the character settles into a lovable anti-hero that transforms into a blind reaper of vengeance. Depp is one of the best, if not the best, actors on the planet. Once again as he did in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp gives life to a character and nourishes the film every time he’s onscreen. This is Depp’’s show. Mexico does have a noticeable lull whenever Depp is absent. I don’’t know anyone else that could actually become cooler AFTER what he goes through. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and Depp totally owns this movie and the 2003 year.

Banderas is smooth and has never looked better than playing the role of the silent-but-deadly musician. Hayek’s role amounts to little more than a cameo. She’s witnessed through flashbacks, but she still has a healthy smolder to her. Blades has the most integrity of all the characters. Most of the actors have fun with their roles, especially the ones that are bad (which accounts for most everyone), but you can’’t help but get the feeling that they’re being wasted for the most part.

Rodriguez’s overstuffed film is so delightfully over-the top and loopy that it crackles with an infectious kind of energy. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a wild and lively cartoon of an action movie with a very healthy sense of humor. Its action relies low on CGI and high on inventive, if slightly self-aware, camera angles and furious gun fights. A sequence involving Banderas and Hayek chained to the wrist and swinging one-by-one down the levels of a building is breathtaking.

What this spaghetti western below the border could have used is a little less of its myriad of twists, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and character subplots. By the time the Day of the Dead rolls on, you might need note cards to keep everything straight. Rodriguez’’s earlier Mariachi films were lean on plots which allowed for fun and grandiose action sequences. Perhaps Mexico could have shaved some of these needless characters (cough, Eva Mendes, cough) from its convoluted plot and drawn out its sometimes too quick bursts of stellar action.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a bloody good time. Depp amazes yet again in this bombastically silly yet undeniably fun south o’ the border shoot-em-up. If Rodriguez has any plans for an additional sequel (and he might given his insane work ethic) I’’d recommend following Depp’’s Sands character wherever the sands take him. To witness this incredibly cool, whip-smart character cut up in any land would certainly be music to my ears.

Nate’s Grade: B

The 13th Warrior (1999)

The movie is supposedly based upon Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead but to what extent I don’t know having not read it, and after the movie I’d never be interested in reading one sentence. The story goes like this; Antonio is kicked out of his homeland for making googily-eyes at the wrong lady, then picked up by a Norse group of men to stop a band of bear-people from killing a small village. That’s the plot. There it is.

The overblown sword-swinging wannabe epic is nothing more than a series of carnage strung together. The movie is basically one long battle sequence with plenty of heads rolling and blood spilling. I just wish that the battles were lit better so I could see what the hell was going on. There’s so much blood flying that there should be a sign in the theater saying “Warning: The first five rows, you will get wet.” You know you’re in trouble with a Medieval hack-and-slash piece when the most interesting thing during the battles is the pretty scenery. And pretty it is.

Antonio Banderas hones the art of the befuddled stare and surmises it as the only attempt of sensible acting in the movie. Rounding out the rest of the baker’s dozen of warriors are mostly unknown Scandinavian actors that will remain unknown. Banderas tries to keep the audience’s attention but is powerless to stop the inevitable yawns that will come.

The characters are all copies of the same mold and the characterization is thin. The story is so incomprehensible and incoherent that it introduces characters, gives them all promise, then directly forgets they ever existed for the rest of the movie and steers off to the next beheading. The love interest is horribly underused and as such largely made for the purpose of cleaning some nasty cuts and wounds from the big bad boys. The movie is extremely slow paced, sometimes unbearably so. The cliched script as a whole introduces so many other promising directions that do nothing but enrage you with the path the movie does decide to take.

Little more than a testosterone pumped B-movie, The 13th Warrior even fails to excite the average moviegoer with any sense of tension. This movie has been sitting on the shelf of Touchtone for over a year of reshoots, edits, test screenings and such. I wish it had remained on the shelf.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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