The Call of the Wild Lacks the Majesty of its Real-World Counterpart

One of my great-great-grandfathers worked as a railroad chief engineer. The construction of the White Pass & Yukon Railway, out of Skagway, Alaska, was one large project for him. So when I learned that The Call of the Wild is set during the same time and place, I became more intrigued. The Call of the Wild is an adventure film, based on Jack London’s 1903 novel of the same name. It stars Harrison Ford and a dog made with CGI, named Buck. Chris Sanders directed the film in his live-action directorial debut. Sanders gained animation experience with Disney during its Renaissance in the 1990’s. 

Watch It: If you want to see Harrison Ford give a good performance as a rugged outdoorsman. 

Skip It: If you’re expecting to see real-life dogs. 

The Call of the Wild permeates with a family-oriented tone from start to finish. The lead character is a St. Bernard/Scotch Colie dog named Buck. From scene to scene, Buck’s human-like mannerisms will cater to young children. Small events seem written to please family audiences with light-hearted humor and pleasure. One involves a hungry Buck noticing a long table of dinner food outside. A couple cuts later, the table setting and food is everywhere, as Buck holds a turkey leg in his mouth. 

sled pulled by dogs

This all sounds harmless. But anyone who even knows a summary of the adventure novel will see the film as quite watered-down. Changes that occur in the source material are more dramatic and poignant. In the film, these events were cut for a more family-centered audience. And nothing demands that a film be for more mature audiences. But these dramatic changes were either minimized or removed. As a result, audiences lose a more empathetic connection with these characters. We also have a harder time following what’s going on when moving changes don’t occur. 

On the plus side, some changes appear in the form of political correctness. Climactic scenes in the novel do not surface that painted a certain group in a strong, negative light. Again, and in spite of that, these removals lead to a mediocre inclusion of a different sort of antagonism. The main antagonist comes in the form of Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens. Stevens, though talented as an actor, is all too out of place as the film’s bad guy. 

Harrison Ford, on the flip side, gives a more contextual performance. Ford is well-suited to the cabin-cleaning, fire-making, whiskey drinking, and canoe paddling outdoorsman that the film requires. He also plays well as a dog’s best friend, a computer-generated dog named Buck. But the CGI of Buck and his fellow sled dogs is quite distracting. We should get lost in the joyous adventure of these dogs through the Klondike region of Canada. Instead, this Northern adventure struggles to gel with ample amounts of modern technology. 

Rating

The Call of the Wild is not a bad film. But it doesn’t succeed to the point of recommending it to general audiences. A loose and questionable storyline proceeds along a safe and cautious path. Harrison Ford provides a well-executed role as a rugged outdoorsman. But the harmful changes and distracting CGI keep The Call of the Wild from being something truly adventurous.

Score: 5.4/10

Sonic Maintains Enough Speed to Keep Families Happy

Millennials remember the Sega Genesis and the dazzling video game, Sonic the Hedgehog. Much like its source material, the new adventure comedy film of the same name is a visual treat. Making his directorial debut is Jeff Fowler. Sonic stars Ben Schwartz, voicing the little blue devil and Jim Carrey as Doctor Robotnik. James Marsden and Tika Sumpter also star in supporting roles. 

Watch It: If you want a basic and cute story with great visuals and performances. 

Skip It: If you want a more considerable and moving story, without one-liners and pop culture references. 

Sonic will remind some of last year’s Pokemon Detective Pikachu. Pikachu and Sonic are both furry, little creatures. They both can emit strong bolts of lightning. Both films rest on successful video game franchises. And both films include white men in supporting roles. These men go through character development, receiving such from our high-voltage pocket monsters. By the end, both films also resemble the same quality-level. 

Sonic is a cute film that works for the whole family. As the film’s antagonist, Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik offers one-liners that work half the time with great laughs. Voice acting by Ben Schwartz for the title character fits Sonic well. Kids will be laughing from scene to scene. Sonic has received an “A” grade on Cinemascore, so it could become a box office success. If it does, it partly will have the writing to thank, geared towards a family audience.

light trails on highway at night

This isn’t to say it’s an all-around great screenplay. It’s still pumped full of pop culture references that don’t quite hit home. And the general structure of the film is ill-defined. We don’t quite get enough changes in the life of Sonic to offer a robust script from start to finish. Overall, Sonic avoids any degree of messiness that would otherwise make it a poor film. 

The visuals of Sonic look great. A blue color palette that surrounds and tails Sonic as he runs at a supersonic speed is great to see on the big screen. Against these blues is a red motif that encapsulates Doctor Robotnik. From his costume design, to his speeder, to his endless amount of drones, Robotnik’s red palette pairs well against a blue Sonic. The final sequences are a visual thrill. 

Sonic himself also looks amazing, and in line with the Sonic from the video games some of us remember so well. The initial design of Sonic received strong criticisms during initial screenings. As a result, Paramount went back to redesign him. Fowler even commented on Twitter that they’ve heard the feedback and would go back to redesign him. Later reactions fared much better. 

For fans of the franchise and world of Sonic, viewers should be content. The main setting of the film is named after one of the levels in the game, and gold rings play a pivotal role throughout. Additionally, fans will want to stay until after the credits. There’s another element introduced that some will love to see from the video games. 

Rating

Sonic the Hedgehog is a delightful film that many families will enjoy. Some comedic choices do fall flat. But many who are now parents will enjoy taking their kids to this adventure comedy. Enough reverence for the world of Sonic remains in the film. Unfortunately, the story plays as mechanical as Dr. Robotnik’s contraptions. It gets a recommendation, but only by a hair’s breadth of a hedgehog. 

Score: 6.0

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus Keep Downhill from Taking a Nosedive

Valentine’s Day advertising has not relinquished for the new dramedy, Downhill. The film stars comedic legends, Will Farrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, making it their second film from the director’s chair. Some may notice that the opening of the film plays the same fanfare as the late 20th Century Fox. Downhill was released by Searchlight Pictures. It’s the first film released under the Searchlight name since Disney acquired Fox. The film is based on the 2014 European film, Force Majeure. 

Watch It: If you want to see the struggles of a marriage on family vacation against a beautiful, Austrian Alps landscape. 

Skip It: If you want to see a silly comedy with constant jokes from Farrell and Louis-Dreyfus. 

Like others will, I went into Downhill anticipating a silly comedy. “It’ll be a movie on the slopes with continual laughter,” the thinking went. No doubt, many will find the deliveries by Farrell and Louis-Dreyfus as hilarious at times. Even when it occurs, though, it’s done with subtlety and more in the vein of black comedy. Yet this is a drama-comedy. Many scenes are tense, some of which leave us wondering if we’re in trouble if we laugh at this part. 

two man hiking on snow mountain

One of the biggest highlights of the film is the camera work done by Danny Cohen. Some of Cohen’s work includes the miniseries, John Adams, The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl, and Room. All in all, it’s no wonder that the cinematography stands out with such a résumé as Cohen’s. Other films would have kept audiences as if we were stuck in a 16×9 box. Cohen, though, puts the work in to offer wide-scale shots of the Austrian Alps. The payoff is quite remarkable. 

Viewers will also be happy to know that all performances by the cast are adequate. They never detract from this dramedy. Farrell and Louis-Dreyfus are front and center in every scene, offering committed performances. It was even required for these two, along with two children in the film, to do some real skiing. Plenty of scenes show that these are not stunts who are hitting the slopes. Farrell and Louis-Dreyfus offer the physical work. But they also succeed with both comedic and poignant deliveries throughout. 

Unfortunately, what keeps Downhill from being an all-around good film is a lack of structure, a weak story, and an odd ending. Even without seeing the source material, Force Majeure, the movie plays like the filmmakers amputated it by 30 minutes. At only 80 minutes, Downhill would have benefitted from at least another ten minutes. Resolution around an exciting finale and character closure would have improved the film. Instead, it delivers a semi-climax that places the audience in the ski boots of the two boys. Apparently, we all need to hear the message of the film as if we’re ten-year olds. When the film cuts to black, confusion will set in and audiences will lack satisfaction. 

Rating

Downhill doesn’t quite get recommended for a general audience, due to its convoluted last act and a short run-time. But the cinematography very much elevates this alpine flick. Plus, Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus give us an emotional ferris wheel that works. In the end, though, Downhill is a mediocre film, destined to screen from a streaming service on a snowy, winter’s day. 

Score: 5.4/10 

Birds of Prey Stays Airborne Despite an Injured Story

To secure a large enough audience, most superhero films are rated PG-13 by the MPAA. Birds of Prey, in theaters this weekend, is the first film in the DC Extended Universe to be rated R. “Harley’s not really someone to hold back. The R-rating really allowed us to take it to the next level with fight scenes,” says Margot Robbie, lead actor and producer of the film. A spin-off to Suicide Squad (2016), Birds of Prey follows Harley Quinn (Robbie) as she must now a live a life without immunity under the Joker’s protection. 

Watch It: If you’re a fan of the DC films and wish to see fine direction, a colorful aesthetic, and a glut of violence. 

Skip It: If you want a more coherent and conventional mode of storytelling, and a PG-13 superhero film. 

Review

Much like her performance in Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie in the lead role delivers another fine performance as a psychopathic woman-child. Harley Quinn suffers from PTSD, where flashbacks of her past life with the Joker still haunt her. Robbie steps into this role with passion and earnestness, offering her character’s accent as if from New York’s working class. This makes sense, as Gotham City has always been seen as a fictional and dark version of the Big Apple.  

close up photography of hyena

On the technical side, female director Cathy Yan was at the helm of Birds of Prey. Put simply, her craft is promising for the Chinese-American filmmaker. Yan becomes the second woman and first Asian woman to direct any US superhero film, and Birds of Prey sings with a ferocious energy from start to finish. Alongside accomplished cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Yan directs a shock wave that makes Suicide Squad feel like a subtle ripple. 

Similar to the reds, whites, and blues that make up Harley Quinn’s face, hair, and attire, each scene pops as a kaleidoscopic feast for the eyes. From fireworks, to confetti, to a violent grit, and a climactic funhouse, Birds of Prey is a visual treat. The film succeeds in its blend of fine direction, camera work, and set pieces. 

Where it doesn’t quite live up to this level of filmmaking is with the film’s story and screenplay. Birds of Prey flies at low levels in terms of plot and structure. The story for young Harley Quinn essentially doesn’t begin until halfway through the film. Much of the first 35-40 minutes plays as frantic and messy. This may have been writer Christina Hodson’s intent, as Quinn herself is quite manic or frenetic. 

As a result, however, Robbie narrates her recent past by explaining, getting ahead of herself, and then going further back in time to better explain. Whether intended or not, Hodson’s writing feels all too Freudian, as if her writing is on display in the film. (“Let me go back and explain.”) Diehard Quinn fans will have no problem and most likely will enjoy this randomized story set-up. For others, Birds of Prey will play without an intended flight path. 

Rating

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a success, for the most part. It does get an overall recommendation, in large part due to the craft of sheer filmmaking, lead performances by both Margot Robbie and Ewan McGregor, a lively soundtrack, and set pieces that are as extroverted and vibrant as Harley Quinn herself. Unfortunately, what distinguishes Birds of Prey from an otherwise great film is a convoluted and thin story. This doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. But it also doesn’t quite soar at an elevation that otherwise would have been possible. 

Score: 6.1/10

Movie Review of Waves

As one of the latest films to come out of the very young and already flourishing A24 entertainment company, Waves tells the story of a south Florida suburban family and their intense, emotional journey they find themselves on. Along the way, the perils of drugs, neglect, domestic strife, perfectionism, jealousy, and loss all make their moves against this family who knows personally what it means to succeed and work hard as a Black family in modern America. 

Watch It: If you enjoy films that experiment with an unconventional story structure, a pulsating soundtrack that is front and center, aesthetic cinematography, and Booksmart but from an intense, poignant, and Black perspective. 

Skip It: If you want a story that has a through line of clarity, is structured more conventionally, and has elements of comedy. 

After knowing that Waves had received early buzz from festivals and famous review sites, this was one I knew I’d need to check out. And in the first two acts of the film, it does not disappoint. Having a slight bias towards films where the score or soundtrack is heavily emphasized, Waves was a pleasant surprise in that department. The film follows two high-school aged siblings, and with the pounding soundtrack throughout, in this way it’s reminiscent of this year’s earlier high school comedic entry, Booksmart. 

ocean under cloudy sky

Along with the music, both the performances and cinematography are excellent. Specifically, Kelvin Harrison as Tyler, a high school senior, Taylor Russell as Emily, Tyler’s younger sister, and Sterling K. Brown as Ronald Williams, Tyler and Emily’s father give all-out performances filled with grit, emotion, and passion. There are also great angles and beautiful images cinematically of southern Florida to add an aesthetic enjoyment to the viewing. 

Unfortunately, Waves subsides when it passes its crest at the end of the second act. This is, in fact, putting it lightly. Due to a flawed story, the film essentially contains two narratives. When the second act ends, a new story begins in the third act. In this sense, Waves fits the rare case where playing it structurally safe would’ve served the film better. As a result, and though filled with great performances, I felt completely distanced from the remaining 40 to 45 minutes. 

Were the makers aware of such a well-executed film? Of course, as it was undoubtedly their intention. Yet Waves, nonetheless won’t win over everyone, as it didn’t quite win me over. I would recommend the film, but mostly due to intrigue and curiosity as to how a viewer would receive it. Waves doesn’t quite make the splash I was hoping for, but as something acceptable still worth checking out. 

Zimm Score: 6.2/10 

Movie Review of Marriage Story

Now streaming on Netflix and playing in pretty limited theaters is Marriage Story, a comedy-drama that’s written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Having received wide critical acclaim up to this point, it tells the story of a married couple, played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, going through a coast-to-coast divorce. Added to this long-distance difficulty is the negotiating of time each one spends with their young son, Henry, played by Azhy Robertson. 

Watch It: If you want to absorb a well-written, well-acted divorce dramedy that’s compassionate throughout, gripping, humorous, and poignant. 

Skip It: Really, there’s no reason to skip this film other than the film genre not at all being of interest. There are no guns, no ghosts, and no goblins. 

Marriage Story I will say up front is the best film of the year, and perhaps the best dramedy I’ve seen to date. While in the past I’ve mentioned how filmmakers seem challenged to seamlessly blend comedy and drama together, Baumbach took up this challenge and passed with flying colors. The film is both moving and humorous, and yet the screenplay works beautifully to not jolt us from one emotion to another like too many films have from one scene to the next. 

city buildings and trees during golden hour

This is what makes the script so fantastic. That and one of the main tenets for a great script being ample research, in this case coming from at least the memory of the director’s life. Baumbach has both been through his own divorce, as well as experiencing the divorce of his own parents. Though additional research and imagination undoubtedly was done, his own memory surely fuels the script with realism and a level of sympathy that a viewer may never have experienced before with a film.

To make the job easier for Baumbach, he had two of the finest young actors living today to carry an already believable and moving script. Adam Driver, playing husband Charlie Barber, and Scarlett Johansson, playing wife Nicole Barber are matched so well together and give performances that are no less skillful than their opposite. One of the scenes is one in which I can easily imagine on the big screen at the Oscars, when we see a brief clip of each nominated actor performing, before it’s announced who has won.  

time square in new york

It’s the supporting cast, however, that could have deterred the film from being outstanding. Fortunately, veteran actors Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Julie Hagerty respectively fill each of their roles perfectly, rounding out a superb cast for a well-rounded story. Additionally, young child actor Azhy Robertson has been guided by Baumbach to fill a child’s personality well that’s akin, presumably, to Robertson’s own personality, making for a much-believed portrayal. 

With Marriage Story, I’m reminded of how well I received another masterpiece last year on Netflix, Roma. This year, however, two knockouts are streaming on the leading service: The Irishman and Marriage Story. With still many well-received films left for release this year, these two films will still be up against some worthy competition. Thus far, however, Marriage Story stands as the best film of the year. 

Zimm Score: 10/10

Movie Reviews of Honey Boy and The Report

Honey Boy

In his first feature film as screenwriter, Shia LaBeouf also stars this year in the drama and somewhat autobiographical film, Honey Boy. Along with LaBeouf, director Alma Har’el in her directorial debut tells the story of a child star (played by Noah Jupe) attempting to mend his relationship with his law-breaking, alcohol-abusing father (LaBeouf) over the course of a decade. It’s loosely based on Shia LaBeouf’s life, who actually wrote the script as a form of therapy while in rehab. 

Watch It: If you want to see a unique and personal perspective on a damaged childhood in a more serious drama. 

Skip It: If you expect to have comedy and a standard film length. (I was surprised when the film cut to credits at an hour and 25 minutes.) 

Honey Boy has much within its short runtime to be commended. LaBeouf, for writing his first feature, has crafted a script that is raw, where we believe much of what is said, truly coming from memory and out of the struggles he had while in rehab. Though he uses conventional devices that fit a coming-of-age story, they feel seamless to the story, running along a smooth continuity. 

adventure architecture building city

Honey Boy suffers a bit in the form of its runtime though, in fact. While 85 minutes has nothing to do with the critique (plenty of masterpieces have had this short of a runtime), this live action film never felt quite fully-formed. With hindsight, the events that occur near the end of the film didn’t feel as though we were nearing the end. There is an ending, no doubt. Yet the ending doesn’t feel all too climactic. Many, like myself, may be a bit stunned when the credits roll. 

This aside, Honey Boy also boasts a beautiful film score and superb acting. Shia LaBeouf, essentially playing his father, Noah Jupe, playing a fictional LaBeouf around age 12, and Lucas Hedges, playing a fictional LaBeouf around 22, all deliver gripping and poignant performances, performances that will leave most of us sympathetic towards LaBeouf’s childhood. Through seeing the film, LaBeouf’s father is now on somewhat better terms with his son. That’s enough to recommend a viewing of Honey Boy. 

Zimm Score: 7.3/10 

The Report

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, The Report is a journalistic docudrama that follows staffer Daniel Jones (played by the busy Adam Driver) and the Senate Intelligence Committee as they investigate the CIA’s use of torture following the September 11 attacks. As the plot develops, so does the 6,700-page report that Jones compiled during the investigation. 

Watch It: If you want to catch a drama that seeks accuracy and you’re a fan of the public policy setting in films, this as a journalistic film on the level of Spotlight. 

Skip It: If you don’t want to witness the enhanced investigation techniques (EIT) used against Arab detainees. The film skillfully uses both dialogue and visuals in tandem to display the torture these men experienced. 

architecture building capitol dawn

2019, at least in comparison to last year, has offered a plethora of quite remarkable films. The Report is yet another that joins this company. Many have stated how crowded the awards season will be, without enough room for these great films. This docudrama places actor Adam Driver in top-notch form, as passion increases throughout the film inside of his real-life character with everything he uncovers. 

The work behind the camera by director Scott Z. Burns displays surprisingly aesthetic shots of quite ordinary and somewhat dated buildings that exist in the nation’s capital. Accomplished actress Annette Bening also gives a believable and polished portrayal of Senator Dianne Feinstein, as she supervises the work (and emotions) of staffer Daniel Jones. 

The Report gets a big recommendation from me if you’ve noticed it on Amazon but haven’t been sure if you want to check it out. Though the dialogue at times may be a bit on-the-nose and the plot line loses a bit of momentum in the second half, there’s a moving finale that will bring some to tears, a film score well-attuned to each scene, and a remarkable delivery by Adam Driver in the lead role. The Report rightfully sheds light on a fearful and panicked time in America’s history that we’ll be the better for by understanding more acutely. 

Zimm Score: 8.4/10