Movie Review: Dolittle (2020)

If, like me, you’re a fan of Robert Downey Jr., you may know that his choice of roles lacks ambition, challenge and imagination. Unfortunately, his newest movie, middling general fare for Universal Studios, is among his worst pictures.

It’s an incomprehensible, computer-generated jumble. The period piece, Dolittle, will do nothing to enhance the outstanding actor’s reputation. It’s a remake of a Sixties’ 20th Century Fox musical box office bomb starring Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley and Rex Harrison. The title refers to a character — created by author Hugh Lofting, apparently during World War One to entertain his children with a tale of the fictitious naturalist John Dolittle in Victorian England — a doctor that “talks to the animals“.

Robert Downey’s voice is muffled. His John Dolittle speaks in a barely audible stream with an accent best described as Mrs. Doubtfire by way of somewhere between Wales and Ireland. The Iron Man star looks haggard, frazzled and befuddled. He’s shot in a way that’s unbecoming. Downey mumbles and generally looks like he’d rather be deadpanning through another Marvel movie. But he’s only occasionally on screen.

Most of Dolittle, which features an onslaught of wisecracking animals in Victorian-era England that say such lines as “see ya, suckers!” and other vulgar modern vernacular, happens in two or three second fragments. Image-manipulated animals look fine, though a dog with eyeglasses looks completely unrealistic and not because the glasses look bad. At one point, a polar bear dives underwater and keeps yapping, having a conversation with diver Dolittle, whose medical degree is curiously left off the title. This type of arbitrary world-making pervades the non-musical, nonsensical Dolittle, which could’ve been fabulous fun.

Its theme about healing, grief recovery and health might’ve played well. But when a sassy-voiced squirrel says he feels as if he’s got a “front seat to Crazy Town” to no one in particular, I admit that I felt the same way. I turned to my guest. His eyes were closed.

Danny Elfman’s bombastic score thunders. There’s a scene with what amounts to a terrorist bombing, which didn’t seem to bother or stir kids in the audience. To peg Dolittle as fantasy is to be exceedingly kind, though a key plot point entails the thing everyone who watches HBO’s popular series says they find enjoyable about Game of Thrones.

The best part of Dolittle is an appealing actor named Harry Collett. The boy plays Tommy Stubbins with perfection. The innocent character, against his family’s hunting practices, loves animals. But he unintentionally brings harm to an animal, which he brings to the reclusive, grieving, misanthropic doctor. The dying animal’s literally left hanging with its life in the balance while Dolittle introduces an unnecessary character. This forewarns the deficiencies.

Downey deserves a stellar career from now on. The actor’s Sherlock Holmes was bad 10 years ago. Disney’s boring but profitable Marvel movies set him up for life. Dolittle is bad, too. The actor who wowed audiences with great performances in Chaplin, Less Than Zero and the woefully unknown and underrated Nineties gem Heart and Souls deserves better. Downey’s Iron Man entertained in the initial outing. But it is with sincere admiration that I wish for Robert Downey, Jr. better scripts, roles and movies than the atrocious Dolittle.

 

New Articles: Iran, ‘The Cotton Club’ and Ayn Rand

The new year started with a turn of foreign events, as I wrote last week. Capitalism Magazine’s editor and publisher, without whom this blog, site and many articles would not be possible, asked to reprint it. Read my commentary on the day America’s impeached president of the United States ordered a pre-emptive and proper retaliation against Islamic Iran, the first serious strike against this enemy of Western civilization, here.

Iran attacks America, November 1979

Since the strike that killed a general for Iran’s army of Islamic terrorist proxy gangs and regimented soldiers of Allah, Iran has attacked America and a Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 innocents with missiles. The American president pledged this morning that, while showing restraint by declining to hit back for the moment, he will prevent the state sponsor of terrorism from acquiring nuclear weapons. When his predecessor brokered a deal with Iran that returned billions of dollars which were withheld after Iran attacked America and seized our embassy, capturing 66 Americans as prisoners of war in Iran’s jihad (“holy war”) against the West, I called it Obama’s death pact. Horrifically, for the Americans and others, including 63 Canadians on board the Boeing 737 Iran shot down in Teheran, death or its imminent threat became real thanks to Obama’s Iran deal. Barack Obama continued U.S. selflessness in foreign policy which, for decades, appeased Iran.

May appeasement end with military defense ordered and enacted by President Trump.

Thirty-five years after it debuted in theaters, I watched a notorious movie by director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart). Read my new review of a restored version of Mr. Coppola’s 1984 motion picture, The Cotton Club, now available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming for its 35th anniversary, here.

Though I never saw the original in either theatrical or home video release, I was not disappointed in The Cotton Club (encore edition). It isn’t perfect, as I write in the review. But its jazz and tap dance scenes offer rare and exquisite entertainment.

The Harlem-themed epic has an unusual history. This is Mr. Coppola’s first movie after a self-financed 1982 musical, One from the Heart, lost money. The Cotton Club was made and financed by a range of contentious principals, such as the late producer Robert Evans, and others, such as Orion Pictures, now owned by MGM, which Lionsgate purchased, acquiring its library years ago.

The nightclub, where in reality only Negroes were allowed to perform for an exclusively white audience, was a swank joint on Manhattan’s upper end. The film features a score by the late composer John Barry, leading performances by Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee (the 1976 original remade with Whitney Houston in Sparkle) and the late Gregory Hines. Also look for Mario Van Peebles, Gwen Verdon, James Remar, Maurice Hines, who appears in a home video segment with Mr. Coppola, Lawrence Fishburne (Boyz N the Hood) as a thug named Bumpy Rhodes, Jackee Harry (227), Jennifer Grey, Nicolas Cage, Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne and Woody Strode (Sergeant Rutledge) as a club doorman. Music by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong is fabulous.

“This is the movie I meant you to see”, Mr. Coppola, referring to the additional 20 minutes, tells a New York audience in the Q&A feature in the bonus segments. The panel includes disclosures about lawsuits, attempts to steal the negative and a murder trial surrounding The Cotton Club, which debuted in the fall of 1984. Francis Ford Coppola also remembers reading and being influenced by Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, with a black character and Maurice Hines recalling his late brother, Gregory, and their grandmother being an original Cotton Club showgirl.

Read the article

Finally, my editor informed me this morning that my article about Pittsburgh and its connection to Ayn Rand (1905-1982) for the winter edition of the print publication Pittsburgh Quarterly, is featured on the online version’s cover. Read about Rand, who revered the Industrial Revolution, and the city of bridges, steel and progress, here.

 

TV Review: Golden Globes 2020 (NBC)

The Golden Globes are an awards ceremony which are essentially and primarily a broadcast to promote Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) influence in Hollywood and to make money for HFPA and its designated broadcaster through advertising revenue. In other words, it’s meaningless except as a tool for promotionalism, offering no real value except as advertising for the industry of mass entertainment.

This isn’t saying much, especially now. I watched the awards broadcast this year for one reason: comedian Ricky Gervais. He hosted the show. This far left environmentalist is a passionate spokesman for his pet causes, such as his crusades against hunting, animal cruelty and for various laws aimed at controlling man’s life. But he’s also a biting satirist.

Gervais did not disappoint. The comedian launched into a scathing monologue against Hollywood, pointing out that the raging, pigtailed anti-child touted as a mascot for environmentalism is deprived of knowledge and explicitly naming Hollywood’s — and Silicon Valley’s — hypocrisy.

As Apple boss Tim Cook, a decent man who defied the Obama administration on principle and won, sat stoned-faced, Gervais skewered Apple and other technology companies for breaching while claiming superior business ethics. Above all, he was irreverent without being malicious. His humor was hilarious. I laughed out loud.

Why? Humor, like music, is complicated. One’s responses to humor are, I think, the byproduct of what lies deep inside one’s innermost premises, thoughts and psychology. That said, in this case, I think I laughed — and, apparently, so did many other Americans — because Hollywood deserves the criticism. That it was done with conscious, self-aware, self-mocking vulgarity unmasks the hubris of California’s preachy, leftist technology and entertainment celebrities.

There were finer moments, including for the celebrities, most of whom laughed at the host’s jokes. They did laugh at themselves, though some of them didn’t appear to know whether this was appropriate, an unfortunate sign of suppressive or repressive times.

The best performing artists elegantly or smartly exercised the right to free speech. Stellan Skarsgård, who won an award for his outstanding performance in HBO’s Chernobyl, joked at his own expense in appreciation of a crew member’s ability. Comedienne Kate McKinnon came out as gay in a humorous display of appreciation for comedienne and TV hostess Ellen DeGeneres, a lesbian who, in turn, expressed admiration for comedienne Carol Burnett, namesake for the award DeGeneres won.

DeGeneres appeared in a montage in which she was shown telling a post-9/11 audience: “What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews”. The comedy succeeds in that clip because, as delivered, hers is a statement, not a question. This goes to what’s good about DeGeneres; her sense of irony.

DeGeneres was shown in various clips dancing through her life, which with her irony taps the essence of her appeal. It was fitting that she won the Carol Burnett Award — Carol Burnett sat with DeGeneres, demonstrating her grace and elegance as always — and she’s a testament to the power of mass media, especially television.

“Live your life with integrity,” DeGeneres told an audience of graduates in a clip, before sending up Hollywood pretentiousness herself in a humorous acceptance speech.

Integrity defines the night’s winner for lifetime achievement. Tom Hanks (SullyPhiladelphiaThe PostA Beautiful Day in the NeighborhoodBridge of Spies) displayed honesty during an emotional acceptance of the Cecil B. DeMille award. This was the best moment of the Golden Globes, which aired on NBC. I say this because Mr. Hanks, an impeccable actor of ability, took the opportunity to share his thoughts and insights on his own ability. This alone is a remarkable departure from the usual pandering, bootlicking, sniveling, smearing and ranting that emanates from Hollywood awards podiums.

An old white male — at a time when the old white male is under siege in Hollywood — had the audacity to reject the status quo and imply that today’s industry needs to do better, to be better, to strive to be the best. Hanks made a strong rejection of the Me, Too movement’s proposed codification of egalitarianism, the basis for feminism, multiculturalism and other offshoots of tribalism. He emphasized instead the singular pleasure of doing one’s work, of doing it right, of doing it on deadline (and, by implication, on budget) and of doing it for one’s own sake.

Tom Hanks made this radical breach of altruism and collectivism after a woman of ability, Charlize Theron, thanked the old white male. Theron thanked Mr. Hanks for choosing to be supportive, subtle, decent, kind and deft in hiring her for his movie (That Thing You Do!, innocuous and enjoyable fluff chiefly of value for its Americanism) early in her career.

Showing genuine emotion for his wife, children and family, following an exemplary reel of moments from his greatest performances, Tom Hanks accepted his winning the award for, as he put it, “showing up on time”, which he rightly called liberating — he told Hollywood that “you [should] do it for yourself” — and for his lifetime of achievement.

This, not momentary hilarity of satire by Ricky Gervais, who distinctly, notably, wisely and, to his credit, did not mock or joke after Tom Hanks spoke, displayed man at his best.

Other artists also shined. Quentin Tarantino, winning an award for his overrated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, plainly declared “I did it” rather than parrot the status quo of an artist acting as if he exists at the mercy of the lives of others. Tarantino also acknowledged writer Robert Bolt, who wrote A Man for All Seasons, providing the evening’s most intellectual moment of justice. Laura Dern (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), unfortunately beating Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell) for an acting acknowledgment which Bates deserves, acknowledged the importance of the story — as against merely pictures and effects — to the movie for which she won, The Marriage Story.

Best Picture clips were ads, not scenes, and the Best Song award presentation— an actor singing to promote his upcoming appearance in a musical was granted more musical performance time than the nominated songs, which mostly went unheard — was awful. Even director Sam Mendes was shocked that he won an award for his movie, 1917, which does not qualify for serious consideration of a great, let alone best, movie. Michelle Williams, a talented actress, accepted an award with what amounts to an attack on the virtue of selfishness pushing more of the same collectivism. Unfortunately, she did this under the guise that she was defending rights, i.e., woman’s right to an abortion, which needs (and does not receive) a proper defense.

For his satire, Ricky Gervais is the host of the moment. But the best part of the Golden Globes, heralding egoism, implied if not made explicit by Tom Hanks, came from Elton John, accepting an award for the first time with Bernie Taupin for a song they co-wrote. Elton’s exuberance, enthusiasm and title and meaning of his memoir, Me, and his movie (2019’s best), Rocketman show that art exalts life. Elton spoke, appeared and expressed himself with a style of his own. True to themes of his movie, book and life, he did so for his own sake, neither excoriating nor appeasing, placating or seeking for the approval of others.

That Elton John was acknowledged and recognized for his ability, and that he welcomed the recognition without pleading for altruism or collectivism, happy to bask in his own glory — this, not satire as such — is the mark of progress. This, man’s pride in his own ability, is what is worth celebrating. This is what we ought to strive to regard as golden and make universal.

 

Movie Review: 1917

At the beginning of 1917, the World War One movie by writer and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty), one British soldier is covered. One is not. This type of visual sets up 1917′s many stylized pictures that signal plot points to come. Most of 1917 is similarly structured, relatively predictable and visually, not conceptually, driven.

Indeed, there’s no historical context. The audience barely learns that the Germans are at war with the British, let alone that what was called the Great War irrevocably altered history, including the arts, as Ayn Rand observed in The Romantic Manifesto (1969). It is somehow fitting that this sensory-oriented, perpetually-driven film, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, only strives to immerse the audience in a selective depiction of war.

It’s a whole, not halfway, immersion. The British soldier characters played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman accept an assignment to save 1,600 Brits from enemy entrapment starting with a charge down the Western front’s winding trenches. The best line in the thrilling 1917, “we should think about this”, is the movie’s only effort to make the audience think about war; the rest of 1917 is more of a horror movie than an epic war movie.

Perhaps this is as it should be, though even the most horrifying great war films, such as Sergeant York (1941) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), both of which 1917 draws heavily from, go to tremendous efforts to dramatize and contextualize in detail war and the men who fought it. With Thomas Newman’s (Thank You for Your Service, Little Children, Bridge of Spies) electronic musical score, cinematography by Roger Deakins (The Goldfinch, 1984, Blade Runner 2049) and silhouettes, light and scenes of men running, Mendes fills 1917 with multitudes of arresting sounds and pictures to hold interest.

The cast, too, including Richard Madden (Rocketman), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Mark Strong (Robin Hood) and Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse), deliver fine performances, particularly MacKay in the lead as the knowing soldier in search of an elusive and faraway band of British soldiers.

Yet the upshot is that 1917 lacks emotional, if not visceral, power. Surely, there are symbolic moments, such as a running soldier against the charge of his comrades, desperately trying to halt the push in an impossible task. This is the perfect metaphor for the Great War, which one of America’s worst presidents, Woodrow Wilson, championed, sending countless Americans to be sacrificed.

That the audience never learns the cause of war, this war’s or any war’s, and sees only some of the carefully selected effects for the sake of horror, goes to 1917′s anti-war message. Such a message may emerge in any honest war movie. In 1917, a historic year for at least a few major reasons, gripping human peril, spectacular images and ominous music mask what at root is a cliched and oddly hollow message that war is bad.

 

Movie Review: Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker

Disney, Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, writers and director J.J. Abrams dig Star Wars a sad and humble grave.

Starting with a bad title, ending with a causeless conclusion and leaving filler that climaxes too soon and accomplishes nothing of substance, the ninth episode of the saga drags, mugs, hams, flashes and limps to the end. What began as a fresh shot of idealism in the middle of a mythical movie series envisioned by George Lucas putters to an incoherently uninteresting ending with The Rise of Skywalker.

Abrams directs and Kennedy guides as Disney funds this mashup of mysticism and mainstreamed “social justice” pap. The problem’s not that Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a female protagonist with superpowers. The problem’s not even that the character is badly conceived, written and played, though, unfortunately, she is awful in every sense. The film’s flaw is fundamental; it exists to repeat an experience, not to dramatize a story, let alone a good story, let alone make the audience feel good and entertained, let alone provoke thought.

Diehards invested in 42 years of merchandising, including toys, discs and related memories, may be inclined to reject this view. I suspect, however, that they’ll be as fatigued as the boy who sat behind me. He started before the opening credits as a happy child and ended up drifting away in his father’s lap, bored, confused and, as far as I could tell, desperate to go home.

Rise of Skywalker blabs, flaps and flops.

Billy Dee Williams, an outstanding actor, reprising his role as a cad, best sums up the spirit of the final Star Wars movie of the central Lucas series; he can hardly work up an interest and looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than this galaxy far, far away. Surprises, plot points and effects aside, the acting is almost universally flat, bad and sleep-inducing with the lines to match. Only Adam Driver, again as the villainous son of Leia Organa and Han Solo, stands out in every appearance. The less said about the late Carrie Fisher, as in The Last Jedi, reanimated, inserted and manipulated here in the same role she originated in 1977, the better. Her character, too, is backdated to become a Jedi knight she never was.

Ridley as Rey is pained, again, shifting looks between angry and hard or between light and caught by some magical, inexplicable feeling. The series’ religious Force, made more explicit and repetitious this time, dominates her character, engulfing Finn (John Boyega), who instructs someone that causeless “feelings” are paramount.

It is important that the audience understand that nothing is at stake in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Rey may be in the middle of a battle, or a duel, or a mission with Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn, and, suddenly, she may wander, usually looking angry, intent or puzzled. Rey may stand in the middle of an open space, furrowing her brow and staring into a void. Or she may go off on her own into a storm, you never know and you never know why. This happens over and over.

This is the theme of what’s become of the George Lucas Star Wars; that one must go by “feelings”, not facts. That one must act on whim, never go by reason, and that good may or may not result but, in any case, the individual must subordinate the ego and rationality to faith, religion and whatever capricious “destiny” results. Time and again, each major character, even ghosts (Rise of Skywalker is loaded with ghosts), submits to the void.

For example, Poe, the closest to a voice of reason in the final trilogy, who was emasculated last time after a decent start in The Force Awakens, rises briefly in stature to regain his efficacious ability only to be reduced, really wiped, in the climactic battle. It’s not enough that he’s dead wrong (is this character right about anything?); Poe has to be deflated in being dead wrong and literally give up and renounce his earlier self-confidence. Only then is he “redeemed” by the universe or whatever’s believed to be outside of one’s self, like an Obama or McCain speech badly dramatized.

The Disney/Lucasfilm/Kathleen Kennedy left’s religion of irrationalism, i.e., feminism, multiculturalism, etc., trumps all with appallingly condescending plot points. Female minimizes male. Blacks pair with (and are saved by) blacks. Gays are gay only for an instant and only if they’re … female, of course. Females are omnipotent. Males are not; men are dolts. Humor almost always comes at the male’s expense.

I kept waiting for Yoda to have a cameo and announce that he’s transitioning. One major series character, who was once a candidate for the series’ hero, dismisses his entire life in two seconds with a line that he was wrong about nearly everything. Another male character, Finn, admits his incompetence at an important plot point; when asked what to do next during a military operation, he admits: “I have no idea [so] follow me.” This is intended as humor, though the boy behind me wasn’t laughing, and soon the child put several questions to his father, who told him to hush.

Finn’s line is telling. It shows that Star Wars inversion from 1977’s can-do Americanism to blank Nineties reboot and post-9/11 tribalism is complete. It falls to Finn, the flattest, blankest character, a former stormtrooper who the audience was once led to believe fell in love with the heroine, to pronounce the 42-year-old series’ edict, which looms over and dominates our culture: “[go by] instinct, feeling, the Force … I don’t know how [to think].”

Finn’s profession of ignorance stems from his fixation on cipher Rey, the ultimate whim-worshipper and magical mystic whose causeless actions invariably lead to mass death and destruction. I wish I could say as I have in previous series reviews that all of this is mitigated by enjoyable moments and effects. But almost everything is bad. Star destroyers appear in such volume as to be distracting and preposterous, even for a preachy, mystical soap opera disguised as a gussied up fantasy in outer space. Wildly undulating storm waves the size of a county go calm in an instant for no reason.

Frankly, the most entertaining moments involve the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), whose scenes and lines are pure cheese and crackers. They drip with melodrama to the point, with logic and reason the province here of the villains, that I was almost rooting for him and his Easter Island-like carvings, faceless band of Sith Lords and legions of assembled, cloaked believers.

It’s as if this section of Rise of Skywalker is a tribute to those B movies in which you find out that the whole town’s populated by worshippers of the devil, who then encircle and seek to sacrifice a screaming virgin until the handsome, dashing hero comes in to save her.

Today’s anti-sex “social justice” activists and makers of movies by commandment need not fear being “triggered”, however. This movie like its recent predecessors is celibate and sexless. Handsome, dashing heroes are, like Song of the South, smoking, sex, guns and egoism and other imagined Disney movie outrages and injustices, purged from Star Wars.

Rise of Skywalker (like Marvel’s movies) does not entertain. Apparently, it fails to entertain the boy behind me who, in two hours, went from happy anticipation to sad disappointment.

 

Movie Review: Never Let Me Go (1953)

Having enjoyed movies, but, really, most stories in any format, about escaping Communism, I recently discovered Never Let Me Go (1953) co-starring Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven) and Clark Gable (Gone With the Wind). It’s good. I recommend it as crisp, taut entertainment.

Do not expect philosophical depth on the level of We the Living or The Lives of Others. It’s not that caliber of anti-Communist filmmaking. But, especially for the Fifties, when Hollywood’s disgusting affinity for Communism, in particular Soviet Communism during its bloodiest era, reached its zenith and was all the rage, Never Let Me Go takes a strong position against Soviet Russia with two major movie stars. This alone merits awareness and remembrance. With renewed relevance due to Communist China’s unceasing influence on, and what amounts to extortion of, the American press and technology and gaming industries, it is both pointed and fierce.

Buy the DVD

Gable stars as an American reporter who’s savvy about Soviet Russia, having covered the U.S. ally during World War Two. But, being an American, he’s uniquely naive, as Ayn Rand explained during her historic 1947 congressional testimony, about the fact, scale and depth of pure evil of the Soviet dictatorship’s impact on daily life; he can’t fully conceive it and this shows in his narrative and initial actions in post-war Moscow.

He learns. This is not made explicit but it’s undeniably implied and embedded in what he chooses to do after falling in love with a ballerina (Tierney with a Russian accent). He’s been in love with her from the audience of the ballet for two years. Early on in Never Let Me Go, they meet once backstage after her encounter with his British press colleague, who is more compliant with Soviet censorship. Her name is Maria. He is shocked that she confesses that she’s spotted him in the crowd and has fantasized about him, too.

This is late career Clark Gable but he’s still Clark Gable and his gallantry, strength and fire still light up the room. Tierney, too, a beautiful actress of ability, shines here as the Russian ballerina, conveying the loss, pain and superior firsthand knowledge of Stalin’s barbarism and dancing in the climactic Swan Lake which precedes an elaborate, tense and daring attempt at defection when the Communist regime moves to strike the couple down.

Thirty-two years before director Taylor Hackford put Mikhail Baryshnikov as a ballet dancer who conceives of a brilliant defection to escape Soviet Russia in White Nights, director Delmer Daves (Destination Tokyo, Dark Passage, Spencer’s Mountain) featured one of the screen’s greatest movie stars as an American journalist who creates for the woman he adores a way to escape the 20th century’s worst dictatorship. Never Let Me Go, involving forged, earned alliances of shared values, mastery of the sea, swimming in the cold, dark water, a horrifying car chase, luck and a stunning surprise at the ballet, holds true to the end.