Dolittle

Robert Downey Jr was the perfect choice to play Dr. Dolittle, I thought, upon hearing he was set to take on the role in this latest film version of the man who can talk to animals. Downey is witty, cynical and observant just like Rex Harrison, the man who played the original Dolittle on screen. Unfortunately, Downey gives a strange, woeful performance. It’s all well and good that he can talk to animals, because I had no idea what he was saying half the time. Downey, for reasons only he knows, speaks in an accent that sounds something like Mrs. Doubtfire doing a drunken pirate impersonation.

The plot of the movie involves a pla to slowly poison Queen Victoria, and Dolittle’s journey to a strange, far off island, where the only known antidote is located. Without going into too much detail, I will say that in order to save the life of a monarch you sometimes need to stick your hand up a dragon’s bum.

The whole time I wondered why, in Victorian England, indeed anywhere in the world, there was not a single doctor or nurse who could have helped the Queen. Why is a reclusive vet Her Majesty’s only chance of survival? A strange film and a laughably bad performance to go with it.

1917

A well edited film is one where you never notice the cuts, where it all flows seemlessly in a single narrative. So what can one say about a film that contains no cuts, that is a single continuous shot (in reality a series of shots pieced together to create a single continuous image?)

Going into this film I was influenced by the months of hype that surrounded it, particularly the talk that it would be one continuous shot, and I was afraid that the hype would take away from the appreciation and enjoyment of what would otherwise be a great movie. Those fears were proved wrong within the first few minutes of 1917. The feat attempted by director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins is so well executed that for long stretches of the movie I forgot that not a single cut had been used. This is, for me, as remarkable an achievement as a watching a film with hundreds of cuts and never noticing one. Credit is therefore earned not only by Deakins but by editor Lee Smith.

1917 is the story of the Christ-like journey of suffering and torment taken by Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to reach a regiment, Blake’s brother among them, that is walking into a German laid trap. Though it is Blake’s brother who is in danger, it is Schofield who suffers the most along the way.

1917, as with Dante’s Divine Comedy, is divided into the three levels of Purgatory, Hell and Heaven. In Purgatory, bodies float in the water, indistinguishable from logs; ghastly faces peer out hauntingly from the mud and soil, it took me a while to tell them apart. The realism achieved here is one of the many strengths of this very powerful movie. Next we have Hell, represented by an abandoned French town set ablaze in an eerie sequence shot at night. Before we reach Heaven, foretold by the angelic voice of a soldier, singing to his weary comrades. It is the last remnant of tranquility before we are thrust into the final battle, a single shot so remarkable in its execution that it is breathtaking.

My Life as Dog

I had planned to see Sam Mendes new film, 1917, tonight. But I ran into a financial hurdle (specifically, a hold up with the weekly wage). So, I will see and review 1917 this Saturday and instead devote this post to the first of many retrospectives. This time, it’s Lasse Hallstrom’s 1985 film, My Life as a Dog.

One of the many things I think people love about movies, and one thing that always draws them back time and again, is the feeling of joy being in the company of lovable and relatable characters. For two hours you are introduced to a world that you had probably never even known or cared about. And then, in two hours, it is as if they have been your friends all your life. My Life as a Dog is such a film. The people we grow to love are the townspeople in a tiny Swedish village in 1959.

Anton Glanzelius plays Ingemar, a young boy who comes to live with his uncle and aunt after his mother falls ill. She will eventually succumb to her illness. This isn’t a spoiler; Ingemar let’s us know from the very beginning of the movie, when he regrets things he didn’t tell her. In my view, this is story telling genius. The decision to make this revelation to the audience so early in the film, rather than wait, as many directors and writers may have done, keeps the movie safe from accusations of emotional manipulation that are usually levelled at Hollywood films of a similar genre. We know from the start what will happen, and so we can follow the film as intended: a rite of passage and journey of discovery for the young Ingemar.

Glanzelius’ portrayal is one of the great film performances by a child. This is a difficult role. Credit must go to the casting director, but also to Glanzelius’ himself, who was 11 at the time. The role of Ingemar requires a sweetness and innocence, without becoming saccharine and, at the same time, a mischeviousness without becoming a devilish menace.

I mentioned the townspeople. It is really they who adopt Ingemar, along with his uncle and aunt. I don’t want to get into the “it takes a village” argument, because I think it is used incorrectly and nefariously, but these are lovable people, all with their own lovable eccentricities. In really felt for them all, every up and down, every emotion. They delight in simple joys. Ingemar learns and experiences so much. You should be happier for having been there with him.

Ingemar with his beloved dog, Sickan.
And with the townspeople, in a scene where they marvel at a unicyclist on a tightrope.

What Makes Art Good or Bad?

That’s a silly question, but it serves as a good starting point for what I am about to argue. It’s silly because it isn’t the question we should ask. Yes, there are good and bad works of art (I’ll be talking here specifically about film) but what makes them good and bad differs depending on whether we apply a subjective or objective critical lens. Most people view film subjectively. They think a film is bad because it isn’t their favourite genre, or the narrative is jumbled or it contains unusual film techniques such as the unexpected cuts in Goddard’s Breathless. But, none of these things make a movie bad. What really makes a movie good or bad is the difference between the original vision and the finished film.

Nearly every one of the films considered the worst of all time was beseiged by problems from the outset. These problems hampered the creativity of the film makers, lead to creative conflicts and affected the end quality of the movies. But that wasn’t the only thing that made them bad. Often, the vision of the director is so blinded by passion, and the film he imagines in his mind, that he fails to predict how it might actually look when it’s finished. Battlefield Earth is one of the best examples of this at play.

This same theory is precisely why many critics consider Pink Flamingos to be a classic of independent cinema. It is a very awful film to watch. It is disgusting, badly acted, and cheaply shot. But it was meant to be all those things. That was the original vision. So the movie works in a way Battlefield Earth just doesn’t. If you mean to create trash and you create trash, you have created art. But Pink Flamingos makes me sick, you may say; it’s so annoyingly and despicable awful. Yes. Then it has worked on your mind just as intended. I try to apply this way of viewing to every film I watch.

Little Women

Can a person feel nostalgic for a time and place of which they were never a part? When I heard there would be another version of this timeless classic I wondered just what more could be said. Then I saw the previews, and I knew I was in for something great. Because Little Women is indeed timeless. It is a story that never dates; it can say something to this age just as it did to people of Louisa May Alcott’s. It is a story of the fundamental but priceless ties that bind us.

What sets Greta Gerwig’s version apart from the four preceding film adaptations is her experimentation with the structure of the novel. The result highlights the novel’s themes of childhood much more effectively than the other film versions. With great effect, we are thrust into the story a few years after the setting of the novel. We see all four sisters, Meg (Emma Watson, in her best role to date) is married; Amy (Florence Pugh) has accompanied Aunt March (Meryl Streep, superb as always) to Europe; Beth (Eliza Scanlen) has caught scarlet fever and Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is living in New York, teaching by day and writing cheap and scandalous short stories on the side. She will return home to be by Beth’s side and take her to the seaside for recovery. It is through Jo’s dreams, of her childhood memories, that the film looks back. It is this simple bit of genius that raises Little women to a greatness that the other versions never quite reach, despite their striving.

Little Women looks beautiful. It is one of the most beautiful films I have seen in a long time. Every shot is lit with such care that the whole film looks like a Christmas card. The chemistry between the four actresses playing the sisters is remarkable. I not only felt as if they were really sisters, I was touched by their love and deep affection for one another. They laugh, they fight, they forgive, they cry, they dream, not a moment is wasted. I did not want to leave the theatre because I did not want to lose their company.

I have heard and read a little about men supposedly rejecting this film on sexist grounds. I don’t really believe any of that. I think that men, naturally, will tend to go see certain types of movies, just as women will always prefer certain genres over others. I don’t believe there is anything sexist or malicious in that.

Little Women is about the strongest love of all. It is about the irreplaceable bond between sisters. Yes, I felt nostalgic for this time and place I had not been a part of. Because, in truth, I had been a part of it, and so had you.

Marmee (Laura Dern) reads the girls a letter from their father, away fighting in the Civil War.

The Gentlemen

I have to start this review by confessing that I’ve never been a Guy Ritchie fan. I understand the appeal of his movies, and to whom they appeal, they’ve just never appealed to me. In my view, he is a poor man’s Tarantino. He jumped on the post Pulp Fiction bandwagon and never looked back. I don’t begrudge him his success, but I do question his worth as a film maker.

A Guy Ritchie movie is one of style over substance. They reach only a shallow understanding of what makes better films in this genre great. Ritchie films are home to gimmicky scenes, needlessly verbose dialogue and goofy attempts to appear clever mixed in with overly clever attempts to appear goofy. The Gentlemen does not stray from this formula. That doesn’t make it a bad film, though.

Ritchie is not an idiot. He is well aware of similar films that have come before and, while I still feel he makes cheap knock offs of those films, he at least knows his inspiration. Films like Reservoir Dogs and the excellent The Long Good Friday. He also frames his narrative quite cleverly, with a cast against type Hugh Grant playing Fletcher, a weasle-like tabloid journalist who tells the story in flashback (including his own little embellishments along the way). He acts as the Greek chorus.

The plot, to be brief, involves cannabis dealer Mickey (Matthew McConaughey) looking to sell his operation and go legit. What follows is a series of escapades involving his rivals and other assorted eccentrics who appear along the way.

What did I like about The Gentlemen. As I said, I liked the framing device; I like that Ritchie knows what film he wants to make, knows what his fans like, and delivers. He makes fun, escapist movies. The Gentlemen is yet another Ritchie films that lives up to that promise.