Dolittle (2020)

Dolittle

The doctor is back. Eccentric Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) lives in self-imposed solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. Devastated by the death of his wife Lily (Kasia Smutniak), his only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when little Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), accompanied by young orphan Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), asks him to assist young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) who has become gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark with Stubbins, now his new apprentice, on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure. He is pursued by Dr Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), a jealous medical school rival who is conspiring with evil courtier Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent) to kill the monarch. However he must don a disguise to fool his former father-in-law, the wild brigand King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) who still resents Dolittle for taking away his beloved late daughter. And to obtain the cure for the Queen of England, Dolittle must do battle with the mythical dragons that lie in his way but Müdfly gets there before himI’m too beautiful to die. A remake of the legendary 1967 musical flop (and Eddie Murphy’s 1998 dissociative iteration) based on Hugh Lofting’s Victorian friend of the animal world, from a screen story by Thomas Shepherd, this is written by director Stephen Gaghan & Dan Gregor & Dan Mand & Chris McKay. From squid and stick inset spies, to a parrot narrator (Emma Thompson), a gorilla answering the door and Downey essaying every accent in the British Isles while attempting to alight occasionally in Wales, this is a creature feature of a different variety. Unfairly maligned, this is mild entertainment determinedly pitched at a kiddie audience. It skips through a vaguely sketched plot that even has an Innermost Cave taken from the Hero’s Journey story model, giving Sheen mugging opportunities in another Blair-ite role; while Frances de la Tour has her impacted CGI dragon colon relieved in a leek-induced surgery clearly meant for bottom-obsessed children. This is wonky but it has a good heart and some inappropriately contemporary linguistic efforts to befriend an ethnic audience using a big-name voice cast for the CGI animals (including Ralph Fiennes as a troubled tiger called Barry, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Selena Gomez, Kumail Nanjiani), plus some of that toilet humour to ruffle the feathers. It’s far from a masterpiece but you know that already and Downey is, well, Downey. For some of us that’s plenty, even when his charm is severely tested talking down to the youngsters. Team work is dream work

5 Flights Up (2014)

5 Flights Up

Aka Ruth & Alex; Life Itself. Who’d have thought that the whole of my life’s work is worth less than the room it was painted in? After forty years in the same building, ageing retired couple former teacher Ruth (Diane Keaton) and artist Alex Carver (Morgan Freeman) can’t manage the stairs very well any more so they put their Brooklyn apartment on the market using her realtor niece Lilly (Cynthia Nixon). As people pass through the property they think about what has happened there over the years and its significance to their relationship. When it looks like they have a viable offer, they visit a few places themselves and feel compelled to bid on one immediately; their dog Dorothy has to be taken to the veterinarian but Alex is initially reluctant to pay for the surgery she requires to repair a ruptured disc; a terrorist story in the area is unfolding on the TV … Do we really want someone like her living here? Adapted by Charlie Peters from Heroic Measures, a novel by Jill Ciment, Richard Loncraine directs two of the best actors of their generation sensitively and with a lot of humour so in spite of the ticking clock motif on the real estate deal this becomes a rumination on life, love, marriage and community and the stuff that really matters but it’s not exactly gentle. It touches on issues of race and society without making huge drama out of them:  the TV story about the alleged terrorist provides some opportune comments about prejudice. There are nice bits with the same people showing up at the different open houses so that mini-storylines run under the main narrative. It’s mellow entertainment with a resolution that isn’t terribly surprising but wraps things up satisfyingly. Maybe views are for younger people who still have things to look at

Nor the Moon by Night (1958)

Nor the Moon By Night film

Aka Elephant Gun. This is not England. After the mother she’s nursed for years dies, Englishwoman Alice Lang (Belinda Lee) goes to Kenya to marry her pen pal gamekeeper Andrew Miller (Patrick McGoohan). However he has to deal with a poaching incident on the game reserve and redirect a herd of elephants out of harm’s way. He sends his younger brother and colleague Rusty (Michael Craig) to meet Alice and they spend two days together falling in love and getting into life-threatening scenarios with elephants. Meanwhile Andrew uncovers a web of murderous corruption led by Anton Boryslawski (Eric Pohlman) whose teenage daughter Thea (Anna Gaylor) is in love with him and he finds himself at the wrong side of some lions …  You have always been a hermit. Joy Packer’s popular novel had been serialised in a magazine and the adaptation by Guy Elmes makes for a fabulously pulpy melodrama with magnificent cinematography by Harry Waxman (who replaced original DoP Peter Hennessey after crewing issues) and one particularly torrid scene between Craig and the beautiful and tragic Lee, who tried to commit suicide during filming. Shot in South Africa (Kruger National Park) and Kenya, with interiors work done back at Pinewood, it offers a snapshot of the end of Empire, a colonial-eye view that’s mostly depoliticised. Directed by Ken Annakin who reportedly claimed of the troubled production, One day there was only me and a snake available to work. Craig had an affair with Lee’s stand in, McGoohan nearly got killed in a car crash but it all worked out in the end. In this country you can’t be sure of anything

Wonder (2017)

Wonder

There are no nice ones. After two dozen surgeries to get 10-year old August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) seeing and speaking he’s still terribly disfigured but mom Isabelle (Julia Roberts) has decided it’s time for him to go to regular school after years of educating him at home. It’s the first time he’s gone out without wearing his astronaut helmet. Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) help out but it’s mainly been Isabelle who’s done the heavy lifting and Via has been left out and retreats to her estranged grandmother (Sonia Braga) in Coney Island when she needs attention. Auggie meets the wise and kind school principal Mr Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) who has him introduced around the school by some kids but Auggie still gets bullied terribly. He wins over some students through his smarts, especially at science where he’s top dog. However when he wears a different Halloween costume than the one his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) expects, Auggie overhears him saying something terrible and it seems like everything is lost … Not everything in this world is about you. A film about facial disfigurement that manages to be truly humane without ever stooping to the mawkish or trite? Surely some mistake. And maybe it’s Mask. Well, that was then, this is now. This adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel is a kind of miracle of text and performance and not just by that fine young actor Tremblay. Everyone here gets their moment in a family that has other problems – sister Via is overlooked, Isabelle doesn’t speak to her mother, the marriage is strained because of the constant caring needed for Auggie. Isabelle had a promising career and was mid-thesis when Auggie came along and her life was put on hold. Roberts never looks for pity in the role and the plot keeps everyone afloat.  Even Daisy the dog needs more from the family members than they realise. That’s good writing. The screenplay is by Jack Thorne, Steven Conrad and director Steven Chbosky, who knows something about young people as we know from that other marvellous film about kids, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on his own book. Right here the issues of middle school, our responsibilities to others, competitive friendship and rivalries are nailed with precision. Auggie can’t change the way he looks so maybe we can change the way we see

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Can You Ever Forgive Me.png

I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

Patrick (2018)

Patrick 2018.jpg

He grunts and snores but I’m kind of getting used to it. Sarah (Beattie Edmondson) is the underachieving secondary school English teacher whose boyfriend has just dumped her and she inherits her grandmother’s pugnacious pug Patrick despite despising dogs. While learning to live with him, she dates the socially awkward local vet (Ed Skrein), her BFF Becky (Emily Atack) persuades her to run a 5K even though she is totally unable to compete, she bitches about her superior older barrister sister and falls for Ben (Tom Bennett) who turns out to be the father of one of her students – whose parents’ divorce is sending her off the rails to the extreme point of not showing up for her GCSE English exam … Nobody covers themselves with glory in what is essentially a valentine to the loveliness of Richmond Upon Thames with its herds of deer and upwardly posh population. There is a laughable nod to social realism by having Sarah stumble upon her male students ripping the wheels off a car. This is so carelessly ‘written’ by Vanessa Davis that Skrein does not have a name:  in the cast list he’s ‘Vet’. Edmondson’s real-life mother Jennifer Saunders turns up just in time to see her cross the finish line where Patrick has finally escaped a predatory cat. As bloody if. Patrick of course is not the point. Miaow! There’s a soundtrack of Amy Macdonald songs, which might please some people. Mildly directed by Mandie Fletcher, who directed Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.

Doctor Dolittle (1967)

Doctor Dolittle 1967.jpg

There’s no doubt about it – animals are far more interesting than people.  In early Victorian England, Dr. John Dolittle (Rex Harrison) lives in a small village where he much prefers the company of animals to humans.  He trains as a veterinarian and specialises in caring for and verbally communicating with animals. When Dr. Dolittle is unjustly sent to an insane asylum for freeing lovesick circus seal Sophie from captivity so she can return to her husband at the North Pole, his animals and two closest human friends, Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley) and Tommy Stubbins (William Dix), liberate him. Afterwards they join Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar) and set out by boat to find a famed and elusive creature: the Great Pink Sea Snail, fetching up on an island where the natives prove a challenge…  How do you make money with a Pushmi-Pullyu? Songwriter Leslie Bricusse adapted Hugh Lofting’s classic children’s books and Harrison and Newley take their theatrical shtick to the screen with zest. A witty, whimsical delight, this was a controversial flop following some disastrous choices of location shooting which led to huge production overruns and Harrison’s loathsome behaviour made filming a chore for the human cast.  The songs are fun, the action marvellous (Harrison’s love scene with Sophie the Seal has to be seen to be appreciated) and it’s a wonderfully colourful musical directed with some flair by Richard Fleischer.  I have nothing in common with the human race

Father Figures (2017)

OW Father Figures

I can feel your brother inside you. Oddball twin brothers, uptight proctologist Peter (Ed Helms) and laidback face of BBQ sauce Kyle (Owen Wilson) attend their mother Helen’s (Glen Close) wedding. While watching his go-to TV Law and Order SVU, Peter becomes obsessed with the idea that his biological father whose photo he’s kept resembles an actor on the show. Helen admits the photo’s a fake and she slept around ‘cos it was the 70s and says their father didn’t die after all – he was footballer Terry Bradshaw, now resident in Florida with a car dealership. The men take off on a road trip that sees them travelling the East Coast for answers … I stare at assholes all day long because of a fictional man’s colon cancer. Best thought of (if at all) as a kind of lewd fairytale (every father figure gives an inadvertent helping hand to the brothers resolving their fractious relationship, the fairy godfather is a lisping African-American hitchhiker); or a male Mamma Mia! in reverse with a kind of Wizard of Oz ending. I’m not sure that that much construction went into this but there are some funny moments (including a very lateral idea about Irish Twins…) despite – and this is a grievous insult – putting the marvellous Harry Shearer into the thankless role of Close’s new husband and a pissing competition with a kid. I mean, come on. Directed by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, making his debut with a screenplay by Justin Malen. I understand how Luke Skywalker felt now.

Another Man’s Poison (1951)

Another Mans Poison.jpg

I want him. I wanted him from the first moment I ever saw him. Mystery writer Janet Frobisher (Bette Davis) lives in Yorkshire and has been separated for years from her husband, a man with a criminal past. Her nearest neighbour is nosy veterinarian Dr. Henderson (Emlyn Williams). Janet has been having having an affair with Larry (Anthony Steel) who is years younger than her and he just happens to be engaged to marry her secretary Chris (Barbara Murray). When her estranged husband unexpectedly appears, Janet poisons him by administering medication given to her by Dr. Henderson for her horse. One of the deceased man’s criminal cohorts George (Gary Merrill) arrives as she’s preparing to dispose of the body in the local lake. When Chris and Larry arrive at the secluded house, the mysterious man, who has assisted her with her scheme, impersonates George, the long-absent spouse of Janet and Chris learns of the affair between Janet and Larry. When George kills her beloved horse Fury she sends him after Chris in an unsafe vehicle left at her front door by Henderson. He crashes, but survives and she determines on revenge … The night air teems with unexpected guests. Sounds like Shakespeare but isn’t. With additions to Val Guest’s screenplay by actor/playwright Williams (whose credits include The Corn is Green), this is a stage adaptation from Leslie Sands’ play Deadlock whose origins remain somewhat despite efforts to open it out and it lacks the visual panache in interiors that Hitchcock would manage to demonstrate with his take on Dial M for Murder. For all that, Davis bristles as a barnstorming man magnet, delighting in the viciousness of her mystery writer role and the woman’s insatiable desire for sex with her secretary’s fiancé. The barbs fly. Of course the second pairing of Davis and (now husband) Merrill is worth watching a year after they met and seemingly enacted the main couple’s relationship on All About Eve:  here there is real hatred between the two. She relishes the chance to play nasty and her manic laugh at the highly ironic conclusion is filled with gleeful appreciation, a creator of mystery entrapped by the machinations of her own deadly plot. We see some of the ingredients for Baby Jane right here. This is a narrative of barely suppressed, sometimes shockingly overt, violence and it’s unique in the canon of her work for that reason. This interesting instance of British film noir was produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who spent a number of years in the UK making independent movies and it was directed by Irving Rapper who had made the classic Now, Voyager with Davis a decade earlier. Shot on location in Yorkshire’s West Riding and at Nettlefold Studios by Robert Krasker, best known for his work on The Third Man. There’s an extremely witty use of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust on the soundtrack.  Out of evil cometh good. That is, occasionally

Woman on the Run (1950)

Woman on the Run 1950.jpg

It’s no use honey once they’re gone, they’re gone.  When he witnesses a gangland murder whilst out walking his dog at night in San Francisco, artist Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) goes on the run to avoid being killed himself. His wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) seems almost apathetic about finding him when questioned by police detective Harris (Robert Keith), due to their marital problems. However, after learning from his doctor that Frank has a grave heart condition, Eleanor teams up with persistent reporter Dan Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe) to help track down her husband with only a cryptic letter to go on. She tries to evade the police’s surveillance team and in the course of her search she finds she has new love for Frank but is unaware that the killer may be closer than she knows… Fantastically nifty and smart post-war noir, with wonderful location shooting (Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, the Art Gallery, Telegraph Hill) and a gripping performance by the leading lady (and producer) Sheridan who delivers great barbs and has a grabby sidekick in the scene-stealing Rembrandt the dog.  Sylvia Tate’s short story was adapted by Alan Campbell and director Norman Foster (an associate of Orson Welles), with a dialogue assist by Ross Hunter and its sharpness immeasurably assists a pacy genre entry. The impressive roller coaster finale was shot at Santa Monica Pier. Underrated