January 2020 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith are back as Miami partners-in-crimefighting Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence). Like the first two, Bad Boys for Life is thoroughly entertaining while it lasts, and instantly forgettable when it ends. The screenplay quickly sketches in everything you need to know about the characters, Miami police partners for a quarter-century, as they bicker like an old married couple. Marcus, a new grandfather, wants to retire; Mike wants to keep acting as if he were still 25, dodging the romantic signals of Rita (Paola Nunez), his boss on the anti-drug tactical unit. Meanwhile, in Mexico City, cartel-connected Isabel (Kate del Castillo) is sending her son Armando (Jacob Scipio) to Miami on a revenge mission, with Mike on top of their list of targets. While Mexico is portrayed the way Trump describes it, Miami scenes were obviously approved by the Tourist Board to attract more visitors to overcrowded South Beach. Mike is shot and sidelined for six months, though it seems longer when he returns to action and is surprised to see drone surveillance has become a thing. We could do with a bit less of the verbal camaraderie between Mike and Marcus, but the action moves fast enough to gloss over lapses in logic.

Iron Man has rusted. Robert Downey Jr.'s latest opus, Dolittle is aptly-named because it does little to engage its audience. Oh, maybe children who titter at jokes about the backside and its functions will enjoy the CG animals; but Downey is wasted as their human caretaker. His Welsh accent isn't as unintelligible as reported, but he would have done better by imitating Richard Burton or Anthony Hopkins. Dr. Dolittle's animal, bird and insect friends have an all-star list of voices behind them, but to us they sound like personality-deficient humans (with the exception of Emma Thompson as Poly, the narrating parrot), even though Dolittle is supposed to be the only one who understands them. An animated opening tells us he's lived in seclusion in his country estate since his wife died, with only his menagerie for company. This changes the day two teenagers arrive. Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) is on the run from his father the hunter and wants to apprentice himself to the veterinarian. Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) is there to summon the doctor to aid Queen Victoria, who is on her deathbed (but since she's played by Jessie Buckley we know she's got many good years left). With the help of a non-human snitch Dolittle determines the Queen has been poisoned and finding a likely antidote will require "the adventure of a lifetime." Their lifetime, not ours. On a long excursion (the poison must be really slow-acting), the doc, Stubbins and the animals face mostly human opposition, and live to fight another day – but you can bet, not in another movie. Though stories abound about the troubled production, a second director and a lot of recutting, it's hard to believe Dolittle could have been worse. The visual effects of the animals are fine, but like the people, they needed better material to work with.

Jeffrey Caine's screenplay, based on a novel, is filled with impossible coincidences and preposterous elements; but director François Girard and his cast make it work. I didn't even mind the frequent shifting among three periods - the late 1930s, 1951 and 1986 – because three different actors play the main characters so there's no confusion about when you are. It begins in the middle, with 21-year-old violin prodigy David/Dovidl about to play the concert that will make him a star. Except that he doesn't show up. More than a decade earlier his Jewish father places him with a gentile family in London before returning to the rest of the family in Poland. The bonding between David and his same-aged "brother" Martin is gradual but eventually strong. In 1986 Martin (Tim Roth), judging a young musicians competition, sees a violinist making a motion that was unique to David; and he resumes the search that had been abandoned 35 years ago. That second-billed Clive Owen plays the older David is a spoiler that tells you Martin will be successful, but that's not the end of the story. The hunt may not be believable but it's engrossing, and the film's Holocaust-related material is some of the most moving you'll see. An unnecessary twist in the final scene doesn't fit at all with the narrative of David's disappearance that precedes it, but it probably seemed clever to whoever thought of it. Turn up your heart and turn down your brain to appreciate the many positive aspects of The Song of Names.

Makoto Shinkai is a name to be reckoned with in Japanimation, judging from this complex modern-day fairy tale of teen love, climate change and a stairway to heaven. Hodaka is a 16-year-old runaway who's moved to scary, expensive Tokyo. Hina, whose mother died last year, says she's almost 18. She's working odd jobs to support herself and her younger brother. We've already seen her follow an odd ray of sunlight to a rooftop shrine, the only sunny spot in a cloudy city. By the time these two meet it's raining constantly in Tokyo, setting a record and flooding the city; and soon it will snow in midsummer. Hodaka has found a job with a company that writes sleazy articles (fake news?) for publications that aren't too particular. In light of the rain, they're working on a piece about "sunshine girls" who can cause breaks in the weather. When Hodaka learns Hina has that ability he starts hiring her out to people in need of sun. They grow closer and closer until she reveals the downside of her gift. The final scene aims for viewers' hearts, not their heads, when everything prior has appealed to both. Unless it's intended to set up a sequel, it's a weak finish to a work of art that's been terrific in every way up to that point. I still look forward to more from Shinkai, whether he continues this story

You know something's weird when Nicolas Cage isn't the weirdest thing in a Nicolas Cage movie. Don't worry, he ultimately gets unCaged in this adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story; but he's amazingly reined in for the first hour. He lives in a house in a New England forest with his wife (Joely Richardson); three kids: Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard); a horse, a dog and four alpacas. Oh, and Ezra (Tommy Chong), their "squatter," who has a cat named G-Spot. A small meteorite lands in the front yard, traumatizing Jack, and the next day the well water goes bad. Fortunately there's a hydrologist in the area, doing research for a dodgy dam the mayor wants to build. He's Ward (Elliot Knight) and Lavinia already has a mild crush on him. There's no pattern to the craziness that follows. The meteorite disappears and flowers bloom in its place. People and animals see, hear and smell different things at different times, especially colored rays that injure them if they get too close (but are pretty from a distance – like your theater seat). Worst of all, they have trouble with their cell phone and Internet service! Color Out of Space is a movie I would have loved when I was maybe 10 or 12, if I'd been allowed to see all the blood and hear the "bad" language. I hate to think I've outgrown it, but I did get the feeling director/co-writer Richard Stanley was throwing things at the screen to see what stuck. The nostalgia it generated for more innocent times – but with contemporary visual effects – kept me from disliking it, but I was also reminded why moviegoers have been spared most of the films Cage has cranked out in the last decade.

Pauline Kael (1919-2001), one of the most respected film critics at a time when film critics were respected, gets the biography she deserves (better than she deserves, if you're among the many filmmakers she panned, often brutally). She wrote – in the New Yorker for 24 years - what she thought and didn't care if the majority of her fellow critics – most of whom were fellows at the time; she's described as "a woman coming into the boys' club" – disagreed with her. Something of a populist, she preferred good trash to bad art, even if her definition of the latter (e.g., Lawrence of Arabia, Last Year at Marienbad, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Shoah) varied from the consensus. She praised the French New Wave and the American New Wave it inspired. She saved Bonnie and Clyde after mostly-negative early reviews threatened to destroy it. She was an inspiration to some other critics – she helped a coterie known as the "Paulettes" to find jobs, and they were said to be afraid to disagree with her; and filmmakers – Quentin Tarantino cites a line from an early review as summing up exactly what he wanted to do. Excerpts from Kael's writing are read by Sarah Jessica Parker and much of her life is detailed by her daughter Gina. But what makes this a treasure for cinephiles is hundreds of film clips spanning 70 years, some illustrating what's being discussed and some in ironic counterpoint to unrelated references. If you like them, don't miss the dizzying montage in the closing credits. A number of other critics and filmmakers, both for and against Kael, are interviewed and quoted. Director-producer-editor Rob Garver has done a marvelous job of keeping this fast-paced and entertaining, especially, as noted, for movie lovers. Hey Rob, if you're looking for another film critic to immortalize...

Revised prediction: Mémorable
A better crop than last year but it's hard to believe these are the very best animated shorts in the world from 2019. Children certainly won't appreciate many of them. Daughter, from the Czech Republic, is more interesting visually, with people who look like papier-mache surrounded by realistic-looking textures, than dramatically, as flashbacks highlight the relationship between a weird girl and her hospitalized father. There's another daughter in Hair Love, an African-American girl struggling to style her long hair. Issa Rae voices her Internet tutor. In Kitbull a kitten and a dog become friends – a metaphor for bipartisanship? The French Mémorable shows a senior couple with the wife caring for her artist husband, who suffers from dementia. The Chinese-American Sister could be the Academy's penance for not nominating One Child Nation for Best Documentary, but further explanation would be a spoiler. Those are the nominees but the program is filled out with three other shorts. Henrietta Bulkowski is better than most of the nominees. It's about a woman born with a severely hunched back who longs to be a pilot. The Bird & the Whale, from Ireland, is another tale of interspecies friendship. Hors Piste - from France, of course – is the most cartoonlike cartoon on the program, the misadventures of two Red Cross workers attempting to help the victim of a skiing accident. As long as you're not expecting to relive the Saturday mornings of your youth, this isn't a bad selection.

Revised prediction: Saria
Once again this year the live actors top the toons, with five adult stories, even though children figure in four of them. A Sister, from Belgium, could almost be an episode of TV's 9-1-1. It's a thriller that keeps you in suspense all the way to a relatively weak ending. Brotherhood, a complex international co-production, is about a Tunisian Muslim family that's reunited when the oldest son returns from a year of fighting with ISIS in Syria, bringing along a pregnant wife. Nefta Football Club, from France and Tunisia, is an ironic comedy about soccer-crazed brothers who make a surprising discovery near the Algerian border. Based on a true story, Saria is a feminist tale (directed by a man) of girls who plan to escape to the U.S. from their hellish life in a Guatemalan orphanage in 2017. The Neighbors' Window is about a New York couple in early middle age whose lives are spiced up when a young couple moves in across the way and never closes their curtains. It's not as funny as you may expect it to be, but it offers a poignant life lesson.



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