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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+

Syriana (2005)

Written and directed by Stephen Gaghen, Syriana is very reminiscent of his Oscar-winning work with Traffic. It’s very dense, complex, and demanding of its audience, which is both its best and worst aspect. I needed a notepad to keep up with the multiple criss-crossing storylines. It’s similar to Traffic in scope and texture, but this film seems a whole lot angrier. Whereas Traffic felt like it was trying to hold a mirror up to society, show us the truth of the failing War on Drugs, this movie feels like a wake-up call as well as a call to arms. Syriana is desperate to shake people out of complacency and show them how the world is running. I love the fact that the “Free Iran” committee in the film that preach Iran’s desire for democracy are not backing the emir’s son that wants to educate his country, install democratic freedoms, put women on equal footing as men because … he wants to open the oil fields to China because they’re offering more money. They are backing the less-enlightened son because he’s willing to give America what it wants: oil. The movie is a mostly potent microcosm about questioning who has our best interests at hand. It’s a bit slow at parts and incredibly rushed at others, and your head will be left spinning trying to keep track of the wealth of information it throws at you. It is thought-provoking even without an emotional connection. This flick reminded me of The Constant Gardener, also a screed against the evils of big business though grounded in an evolving love story. This is a movie I admire more than I can say I enjoyed.

Nate’s Grade: B

Traffic (2000)

The war on drugs may be one worth fighting but it’s a battle that every day seems more and more impossible. Traffic is a mirror that communicates the fruition of our current procedures to stop the illegal flow of drugs.

Traffic is told through three distinct and different narratives. One involves an Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) newly appointed as the nation’s next Drug Czar. While he accepts his position and promises to fight for our nation’s children, back at home, unbeknownst to him, his daughter is free-basing with her bad influence boyfriend. Another story involves a wealthy bourgeois wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) awakened to her husband’s arrest. Her shock continues when family lawyer Dennis Quaid informs her of her husband’s true source of income. He’s to be prosecuted by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) unless she can do something. The final and most compelling narrative involves Benicio Del Toro as an honest cop in Tijuana battling frustration with the mass corruption surrounding the city. Each story weaves in and out at various points in the film.

Traffic was photographed and directed by the man with the hottest hand in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh. He uses a documentary feel to his filming that adds to the realism. Different color tones are assigned toward the three narratives as reflections of the emotional background. Soderbergh expertly handles the many facets of the drug industry and pulls out his typical “career best” performances from his onslaught of actors.

Benicio Del Toro is the emotional center of Traffic. His solemn demeanor and hound dog exterior reflect a good man trying to fight the good fight in a corrupt environment. He effortlessly encompasses determination, courage, and compassion that you’ll easily forget the majority of his lines are in Espanol. Benicio is an incredibly talented actor and one with such vibrant energy whenever he flashes on screen. It’ll be wonderful watching him collect all his awards.

Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows strong signs there may well indeed be an actress under her features. Her role is one of almost terror as you watch her so easily slip into her imprisoned hubby’s shoes. The ease of transformation is startling, but in an “evil begets evil” kind of fashion. The fact that she’s pregnant through the entire movie only makes the shift from loving house wife to drug smuggler more chilling.

The entire cast does credible acting performances with particular attention paid toward the younger actors deservingly. Don Cheadle throws in another terrific performance showing he’s sublimely one of the best actors around today.

Traffic oversteps its ambitions and aims for a scope far too large. It is based on a 6 hour BBC mini-series, so trying to cram that material into a two hour plus format is taxing. As a result we get an assembly of characters, but too many with too little time in between to do any justice. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) condenses the towering impact and influence drugs have well enough, but he intercuts the stories too sporadically that attachment never builds for either of the three narratives. He does balance the Douglas Drug Czar one carefully as not to fall into the cliched vigilante metamorphosis. But the mini-series had more characterization and depth to its tale.

Traffic is a good film but it has edges of greatness never fully visioned. Soderbergh shines bright yet again and all accolades will be deserved. Traffic is undeniably a good film, but it’s one you may not want to watch a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Rules of Engagement (2000)

Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones are old war pals who took separate paths after a cataclysmic ambush in Vietnam. Jackson went on to a prestigious career in combat but Jones was restricted to desk jobs the rest of his tenure. It appears Arabs are at their old tricks again, being that without Nazis or Communists they are Hollywood’s favorite misrepresented bad guys. Jackson gets dispatched to protect a U.S. embassy besieged by protests. During the melee of confusion Jackson orders fire on the crowds outside. Now he has to face the ramifications which include murder charges and a tangled web of conspiracy.

Jackson gives an electric performance as the Marine Captain full of sound and fury. Jones and Jackson exhibit great chemistry together under William Friedkin’s deft hand. Friedkin, known for classics like The French Connection and The Exorcist, whose last pic was Jade, has crafted exciting sequences of action and suspense. The problem is they all happen early and the film unwinds and unspools as it continues.

Bruce Greenwood seems to be making a career out of beguiling Jones. In last fall’s Double Jeopardy he was a slimy not-so-dead hubby, and in Rules he’s a slimy National Security adviser. These two look like they’ll be the Ben and Matt of the over forty crowd.

Rules of Engagement is a courtroom action/drama that plays closely to the rules established but coasts on terrific performances from its leads and some dynamite action sequences. But eventually the weight of the plot drags Rules from the potential it flashed.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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