CGI Animals and a Daffy Robert Downey Jr. Performance Make for a Feather-Brained ‘Dolittle’

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Harry Collett, Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Carmel Laniado, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard, Jason Mantzoukas, Frances de la Tour

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: PG for Mild Animal Chaos

Release Date: January 17, 2020

It’s not a great sign when my favorite part of a movie is the end credits revealing who all the voice actors were, especially when it’s a movie about talking to animals, because … I love talking to animals! Not necessarily in the Dr. Dolittle sense, but if I did have that ability, I would be happy to use it. As for Robert Downey Jr.’s version of the classic fictional veterinarian, I wouldn’t say that he is unhappy about his interspecies communication abilities, but he is making some odd choices, what with an unplaceable accent while barely opening his mouth whenever he talks to the point that it seems like he is practicing his ventriloquism. Dolittle is a movie whose existence in 2020 I’m having trouble fathoming, but despite that, I can’t say that I doubt Downey’s commitment, however strange it may be.

Anyway, the plot is some fever dream logic-driven concoction about how a reclusive Dr. Dolittle, hiding away in his home following the death of his wife, is summoned to set out on an adventure to find a cure for a deathly ill young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley). Naturally enough, his animal friends join him to help out, and their presence on this journey just feels too unremarkable. Perhaps that has to do with the reliance on CGI, which renders these creatures less adorable and more just humans with fur or feathers or scales. For the most part, then, Dolittle is a mix of humdrum when it should be goofy and ridiculous when it should be straightforward. Although, there is one part when Dr. Dolittle removes a set of bagpipes from a dragon’s colon, so this endeavor wasn’t a total disappointment.

Dolittle is Recommended If You Have: A Bottomless Appreciation for CGI Animal Hijinx

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Quacks

All the Extra-Sweet Holiday Decorations Can’t Disguise the Fact That ‘Last Christmas’ is Really About Doing the Work to Take Care of Ourselves

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CREDIT: Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures

Starring: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Peter Mygind

Director: Paul Feig

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Young Adults Getting Themselves Into Hot Mess Situations

Release Date: November 8, 2019

If you’re the type who likes to speculate before going to see a movie, then you may have surmised that a twist is afoot in Last Christmas. And it’s probably pretty close to (if not exactly) the twist you think it is, especially if you’ve noticed that in the trailer, nobody interacts with Henry Golding’s Tom besides Emilia Clarke’s Kate and if you’ve remembered the lyrics to the Wham! song that serves as this film’s namesake and inspired the plot. It’s not as if Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings’ script or Paul Feig’s direction is trying too hard to hide the reveal, as early scenes feature Tom using goofy evasive maneuvers (that nobody but Kate seems to notice) to avoid bumping into passing pedestrians. The success of Last Christmas does not hinge on the twist, thankfully, though I do wonder what it would have been like if it had showed its more hand earlier. The choice to keep things under wraps does make sense considering the story’s perspective, at least, and either way, the message about finding the inner strength to re-discover our best selves shines through.

The other big hook of Last Christmas is that Kate is in long-term recovery mode following a health scare a year earlier that necessitated a heart transplant. Physically, she seems to be doing just fine now, but mentally it’s another story. She appears to be suffering from undiagnosed depression, which is leading to a pattern of poor decisions: hooking up with a series of one-night stands, causing general destruction while couch surfing at her friends’ apartments, neglecting to lock up for the night while leaving work. Her current inability to fulfill the personality requirements of her job as a department store elf (under the employ of a shop owner who calls herself “Santa,” no less) could not be starker. Meanwhile, she’s also got plenty of stress emanating from her family, thanks to an overbearing mother (Thompson) who won’t stop calling her, a sister (Lydia Leonard) keeping her sexuality a secret from their parents, a father (Boris Isakovic) who systematically avoids conflict, and the long-term trauma of having grown up in the war-torn former Yugoslavia.

Thus, with everything so heavy in Kate’s life, I didn’t bat an eye at Tom’s saintly perfection, as this was exactly what she needed, and while skepticism can be healthy, it’s foolish to complain about something definitively good. He may suddenly show up without warning, but he knows exactly what to say to get Kate feeling like herself again. On top of that, he somehow manages to get by in this modern digitized world without carrying his phone around all the time and he (what else?) volunteers at a homeless shelter. His only shortcoming is that he has a habit of disappearing for days on end, only returning by some unpredictable whim. When he’s present, he provides the sort of emotional support that is essential for Kate right now and that we all require to get by as human beings. When he’s gone, it’s a test for her to learn that maybe she has that support within herself to get by on her own.

Last Christmas ends with Kate,, the full picture of health and 100% in the Christmas mood, putting on a little show in support of the homeless shelter. All her loved ones new and old are there to support her, and if that sounds a little too perfect, well, it probably is. We have at least seen Kate get to this point of fulfillment, so her triumph isn’t frustrating. But we haven’t quite spent the same time with her family to know that they’ve also been able to work through all their burdens. Maybe, though, we can assume that they too have had their own mysterious visitors who have helped them along, and then we can go on and sing some happy carols.

Last Christmas is Recommended If You Like: George Michael music, Some sort of combination of Love Actually, Fleabag, and BoJack Horseman

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Comical Eastern European Accents

Movie Review: ‘Men in Black International’ is Kind of a Lateral Move as Far as Spinoffs Go

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CREDIT: Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures

Starring: Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Kumail Nanjiani, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson

Director: F. Gray Gray

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Gooey Alien Residue

Release Date: June 14, 2019

It’s often a joy to watch professionals perform their jobs competently, so there’s a bit of a thrill to watching Molly (Tessa Thompson) turn into Agent M in the opening act of Men in Black International. After she has an extraterrestrial encounter as a child, she dedicates her life to the goal of joining the secretive alien-monitoring organization, and she is undoubtedly a promising recruit, perhaps one of their best ever. But when it comes to making a film, what we demand isn’t competency so much as artistry. Director F. Gary Gray and his cast and crew have delivered a competent product, and I imagine they had a lot of fun making it. But it is not an out-of-this-world experience, nothing that rocks your sense of reality to its core.

The presence of “International” in the title and the lack of Agents J and K in the lineup seems to promise that we’ll be getting something a little different from what we’ve seen before. And it’s true, this chapter offers plenty that wasn’t on display in MIB‘s 1-3. But we have seen it in other movies in general. There’s the sort of globetrotting typical of Indiana Jones and James Bond, plus a paranoid infiltration angle that calls to mind Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as a spy-within-our-ranks routine we know and love from John le Carré thrillers. Even the alien creature design, which at first glance features plenty of original imagination, may have had some inadvertent inspiration, as one blue fellow looks like the X-Men’s Beast, but with quills instead of fur. (Perhaps it’s a case of convergent evolution?) If the only movies you’ve ever seen are Men in Black, Men in Black 2, and Men in Black 3, then perhaps Men in Black International will expand your consciousness, but for the rest of us, we will continue the search elsewhere for whatever originality remains in the universe.

Men in Black International is Recommended If You Like: Reassembling spare parents

Grade: 2 out of 5 Neuralyzers

Movie Review: ‘Late Night’ Brings Some Diverse Casting, But Not Diverse Storytelling Ideas, to the Workplace Comedy Genre

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CREDIT: Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios

Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott, Hugh Dancy, Max Casella, Amy Ryan, Paul Walter Hauser, John Early, Ike Barinholtz

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: R for Comedy Writers Talking as They Do

Release Date: June 7, 2019 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide June 14, 2019

Late Night stars Mindy Kaling (who also penned the script) as Molly Patel, the new hire at a talk show’s previously all-male, all-white writers’ room. But the real kicker isn’t so much the push for a diversity hire as much as it is Molly’s professional background, or lack thereof. She previously worked as an efficiency expert at a chemical plant and made it into her new gig through the most contrived of circumstances. I could complain about how unlikely Molly’s journey is, but I actually don’t care about the unlikelihood. The most improbable version of this story possible is perfectly fine so long as it is also some combination of funny, unique, and insightful. Alas, it is not really any of those things.

CREDIT: Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios

The setup isn’t the problem. In addition to the Molly angle, there’s also the matter of this show being hosted by a woman, the legendary (i.e., relic) Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). Late Night tries to say something meaningful about how even a woman can reinforce the good ol’ boy status quo. But Katherine’s mistreatment of her staff transcends gender and race. And ultimately the social commentary amounts to little more than a red herring. This is mainly the story of the odd couple friendship that develops between Katherine and Molly, which is nice enough, but it struggles to be resonant within a rather scattered, shallow approach.

Late Night is Recommended If You Like: Watching old middle-of-the-road late night talk show clips

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Monologue Jokes

SNL Love It/Keep It/Leave It: Emma Thompson/Jonas Brothers

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

Jeffrey Malone watches every new episode of Saturday Night Live and then organizes the sketches into the following categories: “Love It” (potentially Best of the Season-worthy), “Keep It” (perfectly adequate), or “Leave It” (in need of a rewrite, to say the least). Then he concludes with assessments of the host and musical guest.

Love It

Meet the Press – Oh wow, a political cold open that’s not only funny, but quite possibly the best sketch of the episode! This is basically the inverse of the How’s He Doing? sketches from the Obama era, but here it’s even more extreme and patently nonsensical. Certain Republicans have knotted themselves into a Trump-supporting bind that is dangerous for everybody and just plain stunning in its blind loyalty. Honestly, Kate McKinnon’s version of Lindsey Graham saying, “Harder, Daddy” isn’t that far off from the real thing.

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Movie Review: Laika Puts Its Own Lovely Spin on the Bigfoot Myth with ‘Missing Link’

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CREDIT: Laika Studios/Annapurna Pictures

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Amrita Acharia, Ching Valdez-Aran

Director: Chris Butler

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG for Wild West-Style Gunfire and Icy Heights

Release Date: April 12, 2019

The Bigfoot-based Missing Link features enough bullets flying around and enough characters falling to their (presumed) deaths to make me wonder if it is really appropriate for children. Its PG rating is justified in that we do not see the bloodiest ends of these lethal situations, and as a stop-motion animated feature, the whole aesthetic is too charming to ever be gruesome. But I still wonder about how well young kids are equipped to handle such unmistakable peril. Honestly, though, my preference is that we give children some psychological credit and let them be exposed to these frights. So thank you for not holding back, Laika (the production company behind this and other stop-motion flicks like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings).

The innovation I love about Missing Link is that its humanoid ape creature is perfectly willing to expose himself to society, or at least to Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), the bon vivant searching for him. Furthermore, Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) speaks perfectly fluent English, which could make the gags based on his inability to grasp sarcasm and metaphor illogical except for the fact that there are plenty of real human people who are similarly not so fast on the uptake themselves in such lingual matters.

Anyway, Mr. Link is tired of living by himself in the Pacific Northwest, and he’s heard that his cousins the Yeti are cool up in the mountains of Asia, so he asks Lionel to lead him there. What follows is a buddy road trip movie in which everyone is gratifyingly on the same side as each other and making a deal that benefits them all fairly. We the audience get to witness some genuine, hopefully lifelong friendships blooming over the course of this high-stakes adventure. If a predictable message of “what you’ve been looking for has been right in front of you all along” pops up by the end, it’s safe to say that Missing Link has earned that indulgence.

Missing Link is Recommended If You Like: Previous Laika features, Kid-friendly Wild West adventures, Smallfoot

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Yeti Elders

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Johnny English Strikes Again’ Because Rowan Atkinson is Still Capable of Wonderful Silliness

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CREDIT: Giles Keyte/Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, Olga Kurylenko, Emma Thompson, Jake Lacy

Director: David Kerr

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: PG for Chaotically Silly Action and a Quick Shot of Someone’s Bum

Release Date: October 26, 2018

There is a scene about halfway through Johnny English Strikes Again that sums up the appeal of this spy spoof. As the title MI7 secret agent, Rowan Atkinson is tasked with preparing for an infiltration mission by navigating a VR simulation of the mansion that he will be breaking into. There is a moving platform that he is supposed to remain on throughout, but he hits the wrong button and ends up wandering through the streets of London with his VR goggles on, oblivious to the everyday city life continuing to go on around him. He completes the simulation with miraculously little disorientation, but he is wholly unaware (and effectively unaccountable) for all the havoc he has left in his wake. Johnny English is absolutely a Supreme Bumble in the Atkinson mold, but his confidence is unparalleled and (because of some mix of forces beyond our understanding) he is the perfect man for the job.

This James Bond parody quite reminds me of The Stupids, the Tom Arnold-starring, John Landis-directed underrated gem about a family of supposed fools who somehow manage to foil a black market arms deal. English is a lot more respected by his peers and colleagues than the Stupids are, but he is still prone to pratfalls and inadvertent pants-droppings. But his record is clear: where everyone else is foiled, he is the one who brings the evil mastermind to his comeuppance. In terms that we can understand, the traits that serve him best as both a spy and a movie are his unbridled enthusiasm and his admirably unapologetic nature. In this chapter, that means we also get to see Atkinson dance to such club hits as Darude’s “Sandstorm” and Sigma’s “Changing,” and how can you say no to that? Altogether, this is delightful English silliness we can all benefit from having in our cinematic diet.

Johnny English Strikes Again is Recommended If You Like: Rowan Atkinson, Proper British silliness, The Stupids

Grade: 3 out of 5 London Lemmings

This Is a Movie Review: Noah Baumbach and Adam Sandler’s Sensibilities Align Perfectly in ‘The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)’

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CREDIT: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Emma Thompson, Grace van Patten, Judd Hirsch

Director: Noah Baumbach

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Probably Be (a Soft) R for Intrafamily Yelling and Artistic Nudity

Release Date: October 13, 2017 (Limited Theatrically and Streaming on Netflix)

It’s tempting to say that The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is Noah Baumbach’s version of an Adam Sandler comedy. That’s a good starting point, though it isn’t exactly right. It is most accurate to say that Baumbach happened to write a character that just happened to perfectly align with Sandler’s sensibilities. The same can also be said to a certain degree for Dustin Hoffman and Ben Stiller, two of the other Meyerowitzes with distinct styles, but it is Sandler’s shtick that leaves the most telling impression. This film could hardly be mistaken for a Happy Madison production, but it is a sort of cinematic half-sibling.

Hoffman is Harold Meyerowitz, a sculptor and retired art professor whose lack of greater commercial success is constantly referenced and bemoaned. His adult children Danny (Sandler), Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and Matthew (Stiller) are all sorts of messed up. Danny and Jean are still recovering from all the time they didn’t have with their dad while growing up after he divorced their mother, while their half-sibling Matthew is still recovering from all the time that he did spend with Dad.

Each Meyerowtiz actor is aces in pulling off their own unique form of neuroticism, but this is primarily Sandler’s forte. It plays into his pet interests of fraught but tender father-son relationships and lovable man-children. Danny is probably talented enough to have been a professional musician, but instead he is terminally unemployed, though he occasionally crafts goofy piano-based tunes with his teenage daughter Eliza (Grace van Patten). But this is not really a matter of arrested development, as Danny tracks as a genuine adult, just one who never had to accept professional responsibility, especially because he could still manage to be a great father while retaining a childlike disposition. And I haven’t even mentioned all the moments of that patented Sandler yelling put to good use. In fact, the film opens with Danny and Eliza attempting to find a parking spot in Manhattan, a premiere situation for Sandler frustration if ever there was one.

The main narrative thrust involves the Meyerowitz siblings dealing with Harold’s extended critical hospital stay. Considering all the tension in these relationships, this could be a recipe for disaster. And while a few scuffles do break out, Danny, Jean, and Matthew instead mostly bond over their shared screwed-up natures and resolve to embrace forgiveness and gratitude. Plus, they also all get to gather around and watch Eliza’s work as a film student at Bard College, which consists of the surreal sexcapades of “Pagina Man.” It features a fair bit more nudity than you might think an 18-year-old would be comfortable sharing with her family, but despite any discomfort, they all agree she has talent. And since she comes from a family that is so naturally entertaining, how could she not?

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is Recommended If You Like: Noah Baumbach’s New York, Big Daddy, Goofy student films

Grade: 4 out of 5 Ex-Wives

This Is a Movie Review Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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What up with Disney ransacking its vault to remake its own animated hits into (mostly[-ish]) live-action versions? This is not an inherently bad idea. These are stories that have been told over and over (often in fairy tale form) and will continue to be told over and over, so why not spruce them up with some 21st Century Pizzazz?

What does new-flavor Beauty and the Beast offer over the 1991 toon? Belle’s an inventor, but that does not factor in too much. There is an “exclusively gay moment” for Le Fou, but it is so inconsequential that you might need a study guide to locate it (I certainly did). So ultimately, this is about some legends of acting and singing giving it a whirl. Nothing earth-shattering, but we’re in good hands.

I give Beauty and the Beast 3 Rose Petals out of 5 Snowy Days in June.