Movie Review ~ Dolittle


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. John Dolittle lives in solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. His only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when young Queen Victoria becomes gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure.

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

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Rated: PG

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When someone is so closely associated with a role or a franchise, it’s always interesting to see what they will do when they venture out of that safe paycheck cocoon.  Will it be something radically different or could it be another project similar in tone, which suggests the star enjoyed being in that comfortable space of little challenge but big reward?  I mention this because as the release date of Dolittle (finally) approaches, I’m reminded that this is the first non-Iron Man role Robert Downey Jr. has played since 2014’s The Judge.  That’s five movies in a row where he’s been the same superhero, albeit one that he’s had the chance to add some dimension to as the role progressed.

By the time we got to Avengers: Endgame, Downey Jr. had turned Tony Stark/Iron Man into more than just another world savior stock character, giving him the same character development (and, I’d say more) than other roles he played previously.  Heck, there was even a concerted effort to get him an Oscar nomination for his efforts until he poo-poo-ed the idea, wishing to just let his involvement end on the high note and not have to make award season schmoozing part of the package deal.  Besides, he knew he had Dolittle on the horizon and perhaps he wanted to ensure he had as little time in front of the press as possible.

If you pay attention at all to Hollywood buzz, you’ve likely heard about the tumultuous journey this film has had making it to theaters.  A new adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s quirky character first created in the early 20th century (said to have been written in the trenches of The Great War), it finished filming in June of 2018 and after a poor test screening went through an unheard of 20+ days of reshoots in April of 2019.  Languishing without a release date for some time, Universal eventually gave it the troubling roll out of January 2020…a notorious month known as a dumping ground for movies that are problematic.  Suddenly, this 175 million movie directed by an Oscar winner with a blockbuster star in the leading role and a host of big names providing voices to CGI animals looked like it was confirmed to be the turkey everyone had thought it was.

Yet after seeing the film early on a Saturday morning with a theater full of children I’m sure had been up far longer than I had, I found Dolittle to be not as bad as I would have guessed and not as much of a write-off as many will expect.  It’s far from a great film and certainly not the franchise starter I’m positive Universal wanted it to be (hence why it’s been unloaded hastily) but as a 101 minutes of family friendly entertainment, it more than fits the bill.

With narration provided by parrot Polly (Emma Thompson, Late Night), we are introduced to the world of Dr. John Dolittle through an animated prologue showing how he first learned how he could talk to animals.  It’s here we also learn why he is so depressed at the beginning of the film, having long since shut himself away from the outside world, content to spend his days with just the company of his animals.  He plays chess with gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) with mice as the pieces and is tended to by wise dog Jip (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and resourceful duck Dap-Dap (Octavia Spencer, Luce).  Years of solitude has left him looking like a wholly mammoth, his hermit-like attitude overtaking every facet of living.

Urged on by his mischievous friends and his own curiosity, local lad Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, Dunkirk) sneaks into the walled off grounds of the Dolittle estate on the very day Dolittle is called on by a representative from Queen Victoria’s court.  It seems the young Queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who took such a liking to Dolittle in his prime has been felled by a strange illness and needs his special expertise to find a cure.  After catching Tommy on his property but finding a kindred spirit of sorts within the boy, Dolittle (after a good tidying up, including a haircut courtesy of the beaks and teeth of his animals…ew) brings him to the Queen’s palace where they soon embark on a dangerous mission into unknown territory in hunt of rare fruit from a fabled tree.  Their travels will lead them to far off places where Dolittle will need to call on not just his talents but the special skills of his animal friends if they are to save the young royal from a sinister saboteur.

For a movie that has been delayed nearly nine months from its original release date, Dolittle feels like it has arrived at a relatively fortuitous time.  There’s not a lot of other solid family options out there presently and perhaps the extra time and reshoots helped give the movie the structure, however lopsided, it manages to construct.  Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for writing 2000’s Traffic and directed George Clooney to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2005’s Syriana but I doubt there will be the same success for the writing or acting in Dolittle.  The bad guys, Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2), Michael Sheen (Passengers), Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), are all etched in crayon that’s been pressed hard on the paper.  They leave an impression but it’s never quite clear what they set out to create.  Thankfully, Collett isn’t one of those effervescently precocious child stars that Hollywood produces by the sackful so he’s a good sidekick but the movie outright wastes Buckley, relegating her to bedrest for much of the movie.  The voice talent don’t always feel like they match up well with their animal counterparts, like Selena Gomez (The Dead Don’t Die) lending voice to a lanky giraffe, though I did get a nice laugh out of Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets) as a short-fused tiger harboring a love-hate relationship with the good doctor.

Credit to Downey Jr. (In Dreams) for not simply sailing through the film on his laurels.  Yes, most of the movie he’s definitely flying on cruise control but it never requires more of him in the first place.  What he does bring to the event is that ease of emotional access when the laughs stop and its time to get serious.  He also never gives off the impression he’s above the material…I mean, at one point he’s shoulder deep in the business end of a stopped-up fire-breathing dragon so there’s little opportunity to maintain a sense of dignity in those situations.

Stick around for a few minutes into the credits, not just to see some colorful paintings of the cast set to a new song from singer/songwriter Sia but for a bit of closure the movie holds back until that point.  Aside from that, I’m not sure what else could be done with this new Dolittle beyond what Gaghan has given.  At one point my mind drifted to thinking if a sequel to this was possible and while it could definitely be created I’d question if it would benefit any of the characters (or sanity of the actors) to revisit the Dolittle estate and the animals within.  I guess I should ask the animals what they’d think of it all…

Movie Review ~ Judy

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Legendary performer Judy Garland arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of sold-out concerts.

Stars: Renée Zellweger, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Bella Ramsey

Director: Rupert Goold

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s so strange to look back at this same point last year before Bohemian Rhapsody had been released.  The buzz on the movie wasn’t great and star Rami Malek impressed in photos as late Queen singer Freddie Mercury, but how would he be in action?  We all know how that turned out: with Malek mystifyingly sailing into a Best Actor Oscar win for a hammy performance in a heavily sanitized biopic…and he didn’t do any of his own singing.  Then came Rocketman in May of this year and the same narrative preceded it into theaters, scrutinizing leading man Taron Egerton taking on the role of rock icon Elton John.  Though not the huge box office hit that Bohemian Rhapsody was, Rocketman was better in all aspects…and Egerton did all his own singing.  Now we have Judy and it falls somewhere in the middle.  As far as biographies go, it offers a standard narrative without much flash but it’s got something the other two films doesn’t.  Renée Zellweger.

We’ve really had a huge exposure to Judy Garland in the 50 years since she died at the too-young age of 47.  There have been TV specials, TV movies, stage plays, stage musicals, drag performers, impressionists, etc., all celebrating that famous face with the instantly recognizable voice. Garland’s star burned bright in her years as a juvenile box office darling for MGM appearing in The Wizard of Oz and alongside Mickey Rooney in a number of “let’s put on a show” musicals.  While she made the transition to adult roles just fine, her time in the studio system came at a price.  Years of diet pills and amphetamines given to her by handlers laid the groundwork for substance abuse issues that would follow her for the rest of her life.  When Garland finally succumbed to her addiction, she had gone through five husbands and left behind three children.

Aside from a few flashbacks to her childhood memories at MGM involving interactions with Louis B. Mayer, a fake date with Rooney for the newsreels, and even a birthday party held months in advance that’s fit into her shooting schedule, the majority of Judy is set in 1968 when Garland came to London.  Desperate for cash and needing to be financially stable enough to continue to have custody of her two youngest children, she accepts an offer for a long-term engagement at the popular Talk of the Town nightclub.  She’s set up in a lavish hotel room and put under the watchful eye of Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who is more than aware of Garland’s antics.  With her reputation for being late and showing up less than sober preceding her, Judy tries to stay on the straight and narrow but a lifetime of dependency is hard to quit cold turkey.  The shows suffer, she suffers.  When new flame Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, Unbroken) appears in her life there’s a glimmer of newfound happiness but the darkness eventually creeps back in.

The movie is based on the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter which I saw in its American premiere at The Guthrie Theater in 2012.  I remember it being a devastating trip through Garland’s tortured final months and was expecting the film to be in the same melancholy vein.  Surprisingly, the screenplay from Tom Edge isn’t into wallowing and feels most focused when it showcases Garland triumphing over her setbacks, many of her own making.  Yes, it’s difficult to watch multiple scenes of Garland stumbling through her sets and suffering the indignity of having food thrown at her (those cheeky Brits!) but at least the screenplay leaves out a few of the harsher incidents that were documented, including an irate patron getting up onstage and shaking Garland by her shoulders.  If anything, Edge throws in maybe one too many Good Garland moments, such as a fictionalized one where the singer accompanies a gay couple back to their flat after they waited for her at the stage door. It’s nice to see her out of her element, but it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about her…though Edge does tie this outing to a bit of business in the end in a rather clunky manner.

Had it not been for its leading performance, Judy would likely have been included in the pile of middling biopics that seem to pop up every few years.  However, with Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland the entire film is elevated to another level.  Over the years, Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) has somehow gotten a bad rap from people and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  She’s reliably good in nearly everything she’s done and has multiple Oscar noms and one win to prove it.  All that she’s done before pales in comparison to the performance she gives here and it will surely knock your socks off.  She may not sing quite like Garland, (her vocal register is higher), but who really does?  She may not always look exactly like her, though the majority of the time it’s downright uncanny how much she resembles the singer. More than anything, Zellweger has found what I think is the soul of Garland and brought that forth – it goes far beyond a mere impersonation or recreation of signature moves.  The first time she sings, really sings, in character on stage is watershed moment for the movie and Zellweger as an actress.  At this point, it’s safe to say she’s a lock for an Oscar nomination and I can’t see anyone putting up much of a fight to beat her.

Yet one wishes the movie were as solid and satisfying as Zellweger’s performance.  As directed by Rupert Goold, there’s not much pizzazz to be found when Zellweger isn’t on screen so it’s a good thing she’s rarely out of sight.  Like the audiences in London all those years ago, you’re coming to see Judy Garland and Goold and company make sure she’s front and center as much as possible.  London in the late ’60s is recreated well, but it’s an awfully gloomy view of the town with the sun rarely shining.  The supporting players are serviceable, with Buckley as her increasingly unamused babysitter faring the best.  Earlier this year, Buckley also gave a thrilling musical performance in Wild Rose and might find herself competing against Zellweger for one or two awards.

Culminating with a truly breathtaking final 10 minutes that expose the heart of Garland’s deep vulnerability, it’s easy to excuse some of Judy’s more melodramatic moments along the way.  I found Zellweger to be downright mesmerizing as the troubled singer and am looking forward to watching her victory lap over the next few months.  Judy Garland sadly never won an Oscar the two times she was nominated (that she didn’t emerge victorious for 1954’s A Star is Born is an absolute crime!) but hopefully Zellweger winning one for playing Garland will make up just a teeny bit for that.

Movie Review ~ Wild Rose


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A musician from Glasgow dreams of becoming a Nashville star.

Stars: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo, Craig Parkinson, James Harkness, Jamie Sives

Director: Tom Harper

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: As is often the case more and more with movies, it’s the films that you know the least about the tend to provide the biggest surprises. I’d seen the preview for Wild Rose a few times here and there and didn’t give it much of a second thought, feeling like it was something that I’d catch later when I had extra time to spare. Then the soundtrack made its way to my playlist and proceeded to sit there for another month or so, gathering digital dust. With a release date looming and an opportunity to get an advanced look at the movie presenting itself, I figured I’d give it a listen and…I was just not prepared for what I heard.

The name Jessie Buckley was only familiar to me because of the buzz generated from her work in a little-seen but much loved thriller from 2017, Beast. What I didn’t know was that she possessed the kind of voice that could blow the roof off the joint one moment and soothe you to sleep the next. Comprised of sixteen songs, the soundtrack was mostly covers but included one original song written expressly for the film (more on that later). I listened to the whole thing in one setting. Then I listened to it again. And then one more time for good measure just to make sure it was as fantastic as I thought it was. Then I began to worry, would the film live up to the soundtrack? It’s a rare problem to have but I honestly had a fear seeing the movie would somehow break the magic this impressive soundtrack had conjured.

Thankfully, while Wild Rose may seem on the surface like a carbon-copy of every other girl with a guitar and dreams of stardom film that has been done to death (and just done exceptionally well last year with A Star is Born), it doesn’t pivot where you think it will and resists the urge to bend when you feel like it will break. Anchored by a superstar making performance by Buckley and overflowing with the kind of truthful heart you just don’t get in films these days, this is a real authentic winner.

In Glasgow, Rose-Lynn Harlan (Buckley, Judy) is returning home after serving time in jail for drug possession. Leaving her two young children in the care of her mother (Julie Walters, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) we get the impression right away being a mother isn’t her first priority because instead of running home to see her kids she first stops off for a roll in the hay with her boyfriend (James Harkness, Macbeth). Possessing a thrillingly soulful singing voice and an equally fiery personality, Rose-Lynn lives life big and loud and everyone and everything else better stand aside. Faced with being a mom to two kids that barely know her and don’t trust her, she only half tries to parent them while attempting to reignite her singing career with the hope of making it to Nashville.

Taking a job as a house cleaner to the wealthy homemaker Susannah (Sophie Okonedo, Hellboy) who isn’t aware of her past or her children, Rose-Lynn isn’t in the house a day before she’s sneaking liquor from the cabinet. While she may not be the best maid, the children of the house overhear her signing (in a creative fantasy sequence where the odd bandmember pops up around the house as Rose-Lynn is vacuuming) and pass that information along to their mother. Now fixated on Rose-Lynn as her new project, Susannah offers her an opportunity to meet influential people and get to the place she’s been longing to be…but at what cost?

Surprisingly, screenwriter Nicole Taylor and director Tom Harper (The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) answer these questions in a different way than I was expecting. Where one film might find a climax in the friendship between Susannah and Rose-Lynn, Taylor and Harper use that merely as a mid-way jumping off place for something more robust and fulfilling. It’s a tribute to the talented supporting players that they support the script and don’t let us get too far ahead of the action. Several times, I thought I knew where a certain scene was going only to have it come out in quite a different way.

Before it builds to its deeply satisfying finale, there’s some thorny emotional terrain to navigate and Buckley has us in her pocket from the moment she appears onscreen. I’m fairly sure she’s in every scene of the film and she’s a captivating presence throughout, even when she’s doing things that are self-destructive and counter to everything we know to be the “right” step to take. When she has her first true moment to just sing while making a video recording, it’s a transformative experience for her and the audience. It’s a flawless, note-perfect performance.

She’s matched well with two formidable actresses playing two very different mother figures. Walters yearns for her daughter to grow up and take responsibility for her children and her life, now fully at the point where she can’t hide her disappointment any longer. Okonedo comes from privilege and perhaps has some blinders on to the uphill climb Rose-Lynn is on. Yet she is still her champion, looking for ways to help her succeed by earning it and not just giving it to her on a silver platter. Both women see the talent and want her to achieve her dreams, but only one understands the extra personal sacrifices she would be making if she does.

The one original song composed for the film is performed at a key point and, paired with Buckley’s from-the-gut vocals, will likely have you grabbing for some tissues. Listen to the lyrics and how perfectly they reflect the journey – and then note the song was written by Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen (Book Club) who may just add another Oscar nomination to her list for her work on this track. If we’re lucky, Buckley’s performance will get a push from its distributor and remembered when the end of the year rolls around. So far, this is one of the best performances I’ve seen in 2019. And if she ever decides to retire from acting, she could go into the studio tomorrow and make a hit record – I’m sure of it.

The Silver Bullet ~ Judy



Synopsis
:  Legendary performer Judy Garland arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of sold-out concerts.

Release Date: September 27, 2019

Thoughts: Our tiny toes have just dipped into the summer blockbuster waters and already studios are teasing us with Oscar hopefuls arriving in the fall. That’s ok because this long overdue biopic of doomed star Judy Garland looks like a nice turn for Renée Zellweger who has been laying low for the last several years.  Could Judy be the comeback vehicle that gets her a fourth Oscar nomination and maybe a second win?  It’s too early to tell for sure but more than fine to speculate this far out.  The first look at the September release features Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) singing as Garland and while she doesn’t sound quite like Judy she definitely looks like her in the brief clips shown.  True, fleeting glimpses don’t equal a convincing performance and I actually found it concerning how little extended glances we get – but let’s just chalk it up to the teaser quality of this teaser trailer.