‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ is Worth a Watch If You Feel Like Being Silly

1 Comment

Clifford the Big Red Dog (CREDIT: Paramount Pictures)

Starring: Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, Izaac Wang, John Cleese, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Alex Moffat, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Russell Wong, Paul Rodriguez, Russell Peters, Mia Ronn, Kenan Thompson, Rosie Perez

Director: Walter Becker

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG for The Nuttiness Caused by a Giant Puppy

Release Date: November 10, 2021 (Theaters and Paramount+)

What would YOU do if a 20-foot-plus red-furred dog started running around all over everywhere? I imagine most people would react with a mixture of shock and confusion, but in this particular pup’s cinematic adventure directed by Walt Becker (Wild Hogs, Old Dogs), there’s a wider range of reactions. Clifford is cause not only for sublime awe, but also for worries about being a good caretaker, or the impetus to justify eviction, or for a standard-issue evil mega-corporation to swoop in and claim that they own everything. And of course, he becomes a bit of a local neighborhood hero. People act very wacky in Clifford the Big Red Dog, in ways that are fairly typical of a family flick, but not always in ways that necessarily go hand-in-hand with the presence of a gigantic canine, and I appreciate that.

The plot essentials that you might want to know are that sixth-grader Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) finds herself with an incorrigible dog after an encounter in Central Park with the mysterious and magical Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese) and his animal emporium. Her Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) isn’t so keen on her keeping Clifford, mostly because he wants to prove to his sister, Emily’s mom Maggie (Sienna Guillory), that he can be responsible. Meanwhile, Mr. Packard the super (David Alan Grier) doesn’t like dogs, and Tony Hale swoops in as a plainly devious CEO to capture Clifford and discover the secrets of his genetic code.

Obviously, something as kid-friendly as this movie is going to end with every character (except the most villainous or toady-ish) rallying around to save the day. So the most important question is: just how goofy do things get? And the answer is … pretty dang goofy. For a generally tame PG movie, there were several moments that had me delighting in their brazenness. A choice example happens when a veterinarian played by Kenan Thompson tries to gently inform us that Clifford’s temperature is supposed to be taken in the normal animal-temperature-taking location (“rhymes with nuthole”). And Clifford himself is as expressive as any real dog, so that plays well whenever there needs to be a definitive reaction shot.

So now the final question: do I want a big red dog of my own? My current living situation isn’t exactly the most dog-friendly, but let’s suppose I have a theoretically more welcoming setup. So with that in mind, I’d have to say: while a mutt like Clifford is great in a pinch whenever you need to run across a bridge, this movie isn’t shy about reminding us of the anatomical and practical matters that need can’t be avoided. Believing in magic can only take us so far, but we can always lighten the mood by saying silly things along the way.

Clifford the Big Red Dog is Recommended If You Like: Goofy uncles, Kid-friendly scatological humor, Standard kids movie tropes

Grade: 3 out of 5 Whimpers

‘Birds of Prey’ Just Lets Harley Quinn Do Whatever the Hell She Wants

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina, Ali Wong

Director: Cathy Yan

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for So Many Broken Bones and Direct Bullet Hits

Release Date: February 7, 2020

The full title of Birds of Prey is Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), but a better moniker would have been Harley Queen (and also the Birds of Prey [Sort Of] Form by the End). I’ve never really known the titular psychologist to be a member of any of the former iterations of this female superteam, though to all you DC devotees out there, feel free to let me know if I’ve been missing out on anything important in the comics. But regardless of how the source material goes, Margot Robbie’s version of Harley is never fully committed to being a Bird of Prey. But while the emphasis in the title may be misplaced, that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie is bad. What it does mean is that director Cathy Yan and her ensemble are willing to do whatever the hell they want, for better and worse.

It starts out promisingly and invigoratingly enough, as Harley tells us her story in John Kricfalusi-style animated form from nun-run orphanage to PhD to the Clown Prince of Crime’s arm candy to unpredictable free agent. This is dynamite context-establishing in the vein of Into the Spider-Verse, but the pace of the rest of the film can’t quite keep up. The plot is simple enough to keep track of, as a diverse crew of vigilantes, detectives, and criminals start swarming around a teenage pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) who has swallowed a diamond that’s worth millions. Time frequently gets rewound to fill us in on backstory and to keep us on our toes, but in the end, it’s all just Gotham’s most relatively mentally well-adjusted criminals getting annoyed at each other.

The violence is shocking and gleeful, but also discordant against the neon-bubblegum aesthetic. It would be a mistake to think that Harley is so sweet that she wouldn’t hurt a fly, but it is never clear how she learned to readily break so many legs with such elan. That technique sums up Birds of Prey as a whole. It keeps hitting you in so many directions while simultaneously blowing up everything in sight and cackling like a hyena (much like the one Harley keeps as a pet). Harley is chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and/or chaotic evil – whatever the situation calls for. She may not be anything more than an adjunct Bird of Prey, but the full-time Birds are happy to join her gig for however long she’ll have them. I’m glad these ladies are having fun, though I would have appreciated some more discipline in the storytelling momentum.

Birds of Prey is Recommended If You Like: The DCEU’s recent one-off vibe and you give a lot of leeway for uniqueness

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Perfect Egg Sandwiches

Movie Review: ‘The Dead Don’t Die,’ And Neither Does the Droll Energy in Jim Jarmusch’s Zombie Goof-Off

1 Comment

CREDIT: Abbot Genser/Focus Features

Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, Austin Butler, Eszter Balint, Luka Sabbat, Larry Fessenden

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for Ironic, But Visceral Zombie Violence

Release Date: June 14, 2019 (Limited)

Sometime around 2010, it was determined that it was every filmmaker’s God-given right to make their very own zombie movie. In the case of Jim Jarmusch, he was divinely matched with The Dead Don’t Die, a droll, occasionally fourth wall-breaking portrait of ravaged-by-the-undead small town life patrolled by Police Officers Bill Murray and Adam Driver. In a post-Shaun of the Dead world, The Dead Don’t Die is far from necessary, but it is sufficiently diverting. It adds an environmental wrinkle to the zombie mythos, as fracking is implied to be the culprit behind the upending of nature. If Jarmusch is crying out for us to protect the Earth, that warning is perhaps a little too late, considering how disastrous climate change has already become. But that’s no big deal (for the movie, that is – the planet is screwed), as he seems to have more goofball ideas on his mind anyway.

The zombie blood and guts are sufficiently hardcore, with the bodily fluids as wet and unleashed as the dialogue is dry and bottled-up. But the main attraction are not the ghouls so much as the characters and their unique ways of being human and/or inhuman. That is to say, while Tilda Swinton has badass sword skills as the town’s new undertaker, it’s more amusing that she gets to lean into a hardcore Scottish persona. This is the type of movie in which Selena Gomez tells Caleb Landry Jones, “Your film knowledge is impressive,” after he mentions some pretty basic info about George Romero, and then Larry Fessenden refers to Gomez and her friends who are passing through town as “hipsters from the city” and “hipsters with their irony” (the odds seem to be that they’re from Cleveland). If that sounds hilarious to you, you know who you are, and you can expect to mostly be satisfied, though you may (or may not) have issues with the shaggy, shambling plot structure.

The Dead Don’t Die is Recommended If You Like: Remaining at an ironic remove, but not being too-cool-for-school about it

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Diner Coffee Pots