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.


Premiere: ‘Benji’ on Netflix

This will always be the week I met Joe Camp, who created Benji. That 1974 independent movie was a creative and commercial success, like last year’s marvelous The Greatest Showman, stunning detractors who rejected it for its virtues. Audiences loved Benji. They loved the scrappy mutt movie so much that a major movie series was born, making more cute dog movies, enjoyment and money. Today, Netflix debuts a remake of Joe Camp’s original Benji (read my thoughts on the new Benji here).

‘Benji’ creator Joe Camp at the March 11, 2018 premiere of Netflix’s ‘Benji’

Camp, whom I interviewed years ago when Bambi debuted on DVD, continues to indulge in his love for animals at his home in Tennessee. With his wife, Kathleen, who helped him formulate a new philosophy of horsemanship which became the basis for his book The Soul of a Horse, he took a trip to Hollywood to attend Netflix’s premiere of Benji with his filmmaker son, Brandon Camp (Love Happens), who co-wrote and directed the new Benji. We met for the first time.

Camp’s is a terrific, true Hollywood story. When major studios rejected his wholesome pitch for a movie about a mutt who brings joy to children, he went and made the movie himself, casting The Big Valley‘s Peter Breck as a single father (the new version involves a single mother) and reaping Benji‘s profit. Producer Jason Blum (Get Out, Whiplash), who also attended this week’s Benji premiere, teamed with Brandon Camp and Netflix to bring the dog movie back. Netflix bills today’s remake, which screened at the “paw-miere”, as a family feature film.

The new Benji, who goes in life by the name Benji, also debuted at the premiere. Brandon Camp, a talented director who recreates the onscreen dog cuteness and poignancy, walked Benji down the “paw-miere”‘s green lawn. When a Netflix promotional photographer asked them to stop for a photo opportunity, Brandon situated Benji, who mugged, barked and posed for the camera while Brandon answered questions — while his dad, Joe Camp, praised his son’s work and stilled Benji to near perfection like a master dog whisperer.

It takes effort and skill to work dogs and kids thoughtfully into film with stories that entertain. Lasse Hallstrom’s recent A Dog’s Purpose was a marvelous movie in this regard and, overall, I was impressed by the new Benji and look forward to more movies with the adorable pooch. Most of all, though, I admire Joe Camp for his independence, confidence and single-mindedness in making a movie which inspires audiences of all ages, instilling wonder, laughter and joy in today’s culture. He’s as frisky, resourceful and upbeat as ever and he’s never gone Hollywood if that means selling out. May the same go for Benji and dog movies to come.

Movie Review: Benji (Netflix, 2018)

If you enjoyed Joe Camp’s adventurous Benji (1974) featuring Peter Breck as a single dad and an adorable stray mutt that loves kids, fights crime and saves lives, Netflix’s remake is probably worth watching this week. Benji, co-written and directed by Brandon Camp (Love Happens), debuts this Friday, March 16 on the streaming service.

Benji on Netflix

With a caveat, I enjoyed the new Benji. Director Camp, son of Benji‘s original creator, seamlessly captures the simple magic and joy of watching a scrappy little street dog try to get a home and a boy to adopt and love him. I think Benji’s fundamentally enduring appeal, and, as a movie series, it’s had several successful sequels, lies in its depiction of a dog that can think and act with a sense of purpose. Audiences like seeing these qualities on screen and dog owners and lovers know that dogs are often as amazing as portrayed.

The low-budget, independent charm of the 1974 picture carries into this version, too, with a few changes to the basic story but the same unaffected, family-friendly sensibility toward decent, hardworking people and the persistent dog that comes into their streets, shops, homes and lives. This means Benji bonds with a boy (Gabriel Bateman) and, later, his sister (Darby Camp, no relation) whose emergency medical worker single mother (Kiele Sanchez) nixes the idea of getting a dog on practical grounds.

The dog is the star of this show and Brandon Camp gets him from every angle, scampering about, climbing, pouting, bounding and jogging through the seasons and breaking into a full sprint to save the kids when they’re endangered. His expressive eyes work wonders on humans and his little black nose picks up clues, too. A terrific plot point comes with humor in enlistment of another dog when Benji’s luck runs out and local police stumble on the job. Add a pawn shop angle, a pair of nasty thieves, a prayer, a boatyard, found cell phone video, being named after Benjamin Franklin and being kicked out in the rain and Benji delivers.

He’s the cutest dog in pictures since the lifesaving dog in The Artist and a worthwhile successor to the original Higgins as Benji, if not quite as stray-looking as that unkempt mutt. What feats the new Benji (real name: Benji) accomplishes, leaping and balancing about, are as plausible or as implausible as other dog tricks in the series or films starring Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. I could watch him in almost any movie, though I also enjoyed the last movie in the series, Benji Off the Leash, so I’m admittedly a fan.

A heavy-handed plot twist puts a damper on the light, wholesome, 87-minute Benji. If you love dogs and watch, and you should watch if you subscribe to Netflix, you’ll know the faith-based twist when you see it in an instant. It’s not necessary, it goes on too long, which is part of what makes it too thickly laid on, and it breaks character. But the scenes of a dog bonding with a boy and trying to save him from harm are compelling on their own terms, especially the expression on Benji’s face when he first sees the boy, and young Bateman as the boy is likable and easy to watch. Almost as much as Benji.

Three Interviews

Dion Neutra (photo by Scott Holleran)

Nestled in the hills of Los Angeles is a uniquely compact and inviting home where I first met Dion Neutra. I had spoken with and interviewed the noted architect, who studied and worked with his father, the late Richard Neutra, a few times for articles about modern architecture. The prospect of an extensive interview had previously been discussed though it hadn’t been conducted. This time, when Dion Neutra suggested that we meet for an interview, it was promptly scheduled. I drove to LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood, parked and climbed the steep stairs. I soon met the man who made with his father some of America’s most distinctive and iconic homes and buildings. We sat in a dining room and talked for over an hour. Days later, we would toast to his 90th birthday and, later, talk again about a campaign to restore one of his father’s signature buildings, the Eagle Rock Clubhouse. During our exchange, we managed to cover a lifetime of memories, thoughts and details of his father, meeting Ayn Rand, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Kun house, World Trade Center, Neutra’s Gettysburg Cyclorama and his childhood trauma in Silver Lake. I knew from previous talks that Neutra’s son and heir could be both eccentric and exhausting. This conversation is no exception. Read my exclusive interview with Dion Neutra.

Jim Brown, Ayn Rand Institute CEO

Another inheritance-themed opportunity for an exclusive talk recently presented itself when the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) named a new CEO. His name is Jim Brown and his background is in business, financial analysis and military leadership. Qualifications alone merited my interest and I immediately welcomed him to the ARI and asked for an interview, which he kindly granted at his Irvine office. Though days into the job, he discussed plans, management philosophy and his favorite Leonard Peikoff works. As an Objectivist who first visited the ARI as a teen when I took the bus to its office on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, who has worked and studied with the ARI, I want my readers to read the interview and consider supporting the ARI under Jim’s new management. An edited transcript of my conversation with the center for Objectivism’s chief executive officer—Jim Brown’s first interview as ARI’s chief executive officer—appears on Capitalism Magazine (postscript: read a shorter version in the Los Angeles Times here).

And I am delighted that my favorite filmmaker—director Lasse Hallström—granted to me his only interview about his successful motion picture, A Dog’s Purpose, before returning to making Disney’s adaptation of the beloved Christmas ballet The Nutcracker. I am often enchanted by Mr. Hallström’s work. I always anticipate whatever he chooses to make. And I am privileged to have interviewed Lasse Hallström before. This time was particularly rewarding.

Lasse Hallström

Lightness in his pictures is perhaps the most indelible quality. Think of the French village in Chocolat or Venetian escapades in Casanova. The way he guides an ensemble cast to perfect union for an exalted or higher cinematic goal—around foodmaking in The Hundred-Foot Journey, liberation in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, serenity in An Unfinished Life, healing in The Shipping News, and the power of a dog to align man to what’s here and now in A Dog’s Purpose—should also be known. All of his movies, which began with his film about ABBA, are wonderfully musical including A Dog’s Purpose. But what, besides unity, love and lightness, is more pressing and relevant now than the seriousness with which he films his stories? This unique blend by a Swede who lives in America is often mistaken strictly as sweetness, which one should expect in a circus culture of cynics, celebrities and smears. The interview with Lasse Hallström, the artist who to me best expresses in today’s movies the American sense of life, is one I know I’ve earned and deserve.

I did not plan the pieces as a thematic trifecta, though it occurs to me that these three interviews explore man’s mastery of living in accordance with nature, man’s mastery of advancing the ideal and man’s mastery of recreating both in movies. Read, think and enjoy.

Movie Review: A Dog’s Purpose

A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderfully rendered fairy tale from Hollywood’s most magical filmmaker. I laughed, I cried, and I thought about “the meaning of life” as the opening line of the movie asks the audience to do. This is such a rare combination in movies—and people, especially show business people, go on about how Hollywood used to make light and intelligent pictures and bemoan that they’re not like that anymore—that this Universal film, made with Amblin, Walden and others and based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron, deserves 100 percent support.

The best pictures often don’t get what they deserve and A Dog’s Purpose, with a target on it from a group opposed to almost any relationship between pets and humans from the start, is one of them, which I know firsthand. In fact, when the smear campaign against the movie was launched, courtesy of a selectively edited video released for distribution through a trashy website, its own stakeholders were effectively shamed into submission, burying heads in the sand, dodging questions and queries for clarification and cancelling the movie’s premiere. Those who spoke out in defense of the movie, including one of each of its writers, actors and producers and the director, Lasse Hallström (The Hundred-Foot Journey, My Life as a Dog, An Unfinished Life, Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), either came off as defensive or as if they were almost apologizing for the movie in advance. Josh Gad (TV’s The Comedians and Frozen), who does the voice of the dogs, took the bait and denounced purported footage in a controversial video rather than back the movie. Almost no one—not Universal, Amblin or Walden, or Mr. Hallström—opted to condemn the smear campaign, which sanctioned the flawed premise of the attack (that a picture, or pictures that are edited and arranged, is an argument) and passively legitimized a disturbing and potentially dangerous trend against the exercise of free speech (postscript: the animal rights group’s claims were false and unfounded, an independent investigation found; read more info here and read my exclusive interview with Lasse Hallström, the smeared movie’s director, here; this is his only interview about the film).

Going to see a movie in a movie theater should not require an act of bravery.

This time, I bought my own ticket on principle. I was joined by another guest when he found out I was going to see A Dog’s Purpose and I was asked again by two friends if they could come, too. The audience at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas was lively and diverse. They were mostly families with young children, single men and single women, seated separately and alone, and couples or groups of friends like us.

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Like most of his movies, which are some of the most life-affirming movies ever made, director Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose plays to everyone capable of kindness, love and rationality. With a sharp and searching narration, as in An Unfinished Life and his seminal adaptation of John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules, intersecting plot lines and multiple characters converge into one poignant point about the whole of one’s life. The action starts, however, with themes of ownership, tagging and naming and what a dog uniquely means to a boy. The particular boy (Bryce Gheisar) to whom this dog first belongs reads comics and books about characters such as Captain America and Tom Sawyer and he grows into a fine teen-ager (K.J. Apa, TV’s Riverdale).

The wholesome, unspoiled quality of the boy’s character adds to the film’s conflict and grounds the movie’s other characters and subplots, building on subtle and gently delivered themes about dog people as peculiar, sad and lonely, and out of step with others, introverted and perhaps deferential to others, too. It’s a keen insight which is easily overlooked amid the dog tales, pathos and humor.

But it’s this type of skillfully woven idea that stirs one’s thoughts and moves one’s emotions in A Dog’s Purpose. So many of these tender truths dot the trail with wisdom, warmth and depth, such as a girl (Britt Robertson, Dan in Real Life, Tomorrowland) winning a prize for herself at a shooting gallery, a hardworking Midwestern father who slowly yet understandably lets himself go or a kid who’s jealous of the star quarterback. Then, there are the short but intelligent, clever or hilarious takes on the rivalry with cats, the sights and aromas of farms, or the irony of overindulging in hot dogs. That’s not to include how a dog’s hard work liberates a stoic policeman. Or that a dog’s companionship aligns in love and life with a college student. Along the multiple incarnations of a dog’s life, imaginatively depicted as foraging for a dog’s purpose, cultural points pop up—a Dynasty smackdown in the 1980s, guns in the 1970s, folk music in the 1960s—and A Dog’s Purpose comes in stunning pictures of a morning fog at the farm, a depressed home with an impoverished dog chained to a post, a happy dog bounding through the field to greet his master. It’s as sentimental as life and I suppose that if A Dog’s Purpose comes off as overly sentimental—a common complaint about Lasse Hallström’s moviesit’s in direct proportion to one’s own cynicism, as usual. This movie earns a treasure in every scene even when you see the scene coming.

With a cast including The Mod Squad‘s Peggy Lipton and Truth‘s Dennis Quaid in his finest performance since Far From Heaven—and a nice companion role to his quarterback Mike in Breaking AwayA Dog’s Purpose leaps from the screen with wonder, twists and an unequivocal answer to the meaning of life. In what may be his best movie since Chocolat, Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose routes life’s loneliness into the chilling, wrenching and marvelous experience of owning and having a dog and with the reward you would almost certainly come to expect.

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Exclusive: Interview with Lasse Hallström on A Dog’s Purpose

Book Review: The Soul of a Horse

Soul of a Horse by Joe Camp

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Some years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing a real Hollywood maverick named Joe Camp. You might remember that Joe created the Benji movies, those independent features that shocked the studios and made a bundle of money by offering simple stories about a persistent little mutt named Benji. Camp, whose son, Brandon, recently directed Love Happens with Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston, kept creating books and movies about the beloved Benji, whom I referred to in 2004 as the screen’s most popular pooch since Lassie. But when the last movie failed to ignite, Joe Camp was discouraged and decided to take up a new hobby, with his lawyer wife, Kathleen. The result is his book, The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd, published in 2008. It’s an exercise in transference from dog to horse by someone who made his career out of caring about animals.

One of the best aspects of the Benji pictures, including the one that didn’t do as well, Benji Off the Leash, is Joe Camp’s strong sense of what forms the bond between man and pet and his soul-searching book about horses builds on that bond. As Camp turns inward in this meandering journal of an amateur horseman discovering and coming to terms with how one ought to treat a horse, he yields page after page of original and thoughtful insights about properly tending to this beautiful animal of prey. From feeding, riding and communicating to blankets, horseshoes, and ropes tied to posts, his hard-won lessons on the ranch, coupled with Kathleen’s slightly different approach, is another volume in the growing literature of books that argue for an organic, or “natural”, treatment of the horse.

One need not accept all of his conclusions, most of which make sense, to gain value from this thought-provoking, and, at times, poetic call for knowledge and understanding in horsemanship. As he puts it: “Few have put it all together into a single philosophy, a unified voice, a complete lifestyle change for the domesticated horse.”

“Leadership makes a difference,” Camp writes. “Even with borrowed horses. Or rented trail horses, who carry folks around every day of their lives. You never know when it will come in handy for the horse to think of you as a leader. And it’s so much nicer to know that you’re off on a ride with a friend. A partner who trusts you. Not some vacant-eyed mechanical device manufactured just to carry you around. The rub, of course, is that leadership isn’t easy or free. With horses or in life. It’s earned. But it does make a difference, and is worth every ounce of the effort.” Whether it’s his most treasured horse, Cash, or Kathleen’s Skeeter, or Mariah, Pocket, Handsome, or, later, Mouse, Soul of a Horse, with a foreword by Monty Roberts, is itself something of a treasure, from a man whose love of dogs has given us so much joy on screen. (Kindle for iPad app version read and reviewed. Click here to buy this book.)