Film Review: The Call of the Wild (2020)

Dir: Chris Sanders
Starring: Harrison Ford, Terry Notary, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, and more.
Rating: PG
Runtime: 1hr 40min
Spoiler Level: Light! Book spoilers are noted.

As a self-admitted former wolf girl, one of my favorite books growing up was The Call of the Wild by Jack London. However, my introduction to the legendary tale of a dog named Buck was actually through the Great Illustrated Classics version, which are “softer” adaptations of classic novels. Much later, in high school, my love for the story was reignited when I finally read the original and was able to better appreciate the sharper edges of London’s story.

download (1)When I saw the trailer for the new film, I was skeptical – and not only because the CGI was a little sketch upon first viewing, and the rating for the film was not indicative of the novel’s contents. And yet, I felt that pull – that inner, long-dormant wolf girl instinct – to see it. So I was there on opening night, in a totally full theater, and, inevitably, I was in tears by the end.

The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck (Notary, via motion capture), a massive St. Bernard / Scotch Collie mix who is abducted from his pampered life in California, taken to the frigid Yukon, and sold as a sled dog at the height of the 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush. Thrust into a new world much harsher than the one he’s known, Buck must adapt to life in the unrelenting north as he grapples with his wild instincts, establishes himself as a powerful leader, and forges a life-changing bond with a lonely, troubled man named John Thornton (Ford.)

Buck’s adventure is a thrilling one, as audiences watch him go from the spoiled pet of a respected judge, to a broken, lonely outcast, to a defiant and capable leader, and a stalwart, beloved companion. The supporting characters – mainly the human ones – come and go from his life at various intervals, and each teaches Buck unique lessons. He learns the “law of the club,” from his captors, teamwork and duty from postal workers Francois and Perrault, folly and greed from Hal, Mercedes, and Charles, and asserting dominance from his husky rival Spitz, who, I realized upon watching, is literally Steel from Balto. But amidst these lessons are over-arcing themes, many of which are rooted in London’s original novel, such as the brutality of nature, grief and loss, and survival against the odds. And, of course, there are familiar cliches and predictable moments, but it’s a family film, so that’s no surprise.

This film truly shines when it features Buck’s growing relationship with John Thornton – the most notable and important friendship that Buck forms. Buoyed by an evocative performance by Harrison Ford, it is clear from the first harmonica exchange that the bond between grizzled man and dog is going to be special. Thornton and Buck come together at a vital stage in each of their respective journeys, at the exact time when they need one another the most, as Thornton is inspired by Buck’s resilient spirit, and Buck is drawn in by Thornton’s genuine kindness and companionship. Watching their stories combine, and seeing their love for one another grow, is peak “man and his dog” goodness and delivers, if I may, “all the feels.” I didn’t think Harrison Ford and a CGI dog would pull on my heartstrings as much as it did, but boy, it did.

I felt the tears spilling down my cheeks as the film drew to a close – against my expectations, I had formed an attachment to the characters in the film, boosted by my already existing love for the story. The finale, the vital moment where Buck answers that call and embraces the instincts that have been subtly guiding him toward his ultimate journey’s end, is wholly satisfying, if bittersweet.

The visual effects for the dogs are a little cartoony – as is Dan Stevens as the mustachioed, villainous Hal, who also entirely shoulders the villain role in the stead of minor novel characters, but that’s not the fault of effects – which will certainly bother some viewers. I appreciated Buck’s overall “look,” as he didn’t look like a wolf, which is the erroneous direction other adaptations have taken. I didn’t find myself distracted by the effects too much, as I was fully engaged in the story, and impressed by the beautiful environments and backdrops. But I also sat through the entirety of Cats, so take from that what you will. Additionally, the score by John Powell is exceptional and is already on my playlist.

Fans of Jack London’s original work will, of course, note the obvious omissions from the source material. This film is not what I would call a “faithful” adaptation. Much of the violence – and the brutal, if realistic view of “survival of the fittest” – has been toned down, likely to appeal to families and younger audiences. Not to spoil a 100+ year old story, but particularly grisly elements (***SPOILER ALERT*** such as Buck killing Spitz, Francois taking an ax to a rabid dog’s head, an entire team of sled dogs drowning after falling under breaking ice, and a negative representation of Native Americans ***END SPOILER***) are either completely absent, or have been “softened” to suit a PG rating. And while I love London’s stark portrayal of the life of a dog in the cold, cold north, and I respect the era in which it was written, I personally didn’t mind the changes in this version. Many of the original themes – nature versus nurture, the enduring relationship between man and dog, and the pull of primordial instincts, etc. – remain important touchstones to the story, even if they are shown in a different way.

Sometimes, The Great Illustrated Classics version of a story – or the PG film version – can open the gateway for a young reader or film-watcher to someday experience the original work, and glean an entirely separate appreciation from it when the time comes. For that reason, this tamer version of The Call of the Wild has earned my full admiration.

Overall rating: 8/10

Take a Chance

Way back in 2008, I was sixteen years old and on vacation with my family in Massachusetts. My dad and I got into an argument over movies – he had already seen Iron Man, and insisted it was better than the film I had twice seen already, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. However, neither of us had seen the other film, so how could we make a determination?

My dad had no desire to see Prince Caspian, and, I’ll admit… I didn’t really want to see Iron Man. Shocking, I know, since I am such a huge fan of the MCU nowadays. But back then, I was way more into Batman, so most Marvel heroes weren’t even on my radar. But I wanted my dad to see the Narnia film more than I didn’t want to see Iron Man, so we brokered an agreement – he would take me to see Iron Man and I would take him to see Prince Caspian.

We went to see Iron Man first… and the first seeds of my MCU admiration were planted. I became a fan, and I had to admit that it was an excellent superhero film. Of course…The Dark Knight came out later that summer, which sparked my overall love of film, but Iron Man was still an awakening for me. I had to admit, even though I had previously felt no inclination toward seeing the film, I was glad my dad convinced me to see Iron Man. From that moment, I never doubted a Marvel film… well, except Thor 2.

Later, we went to see Prince Caspian. I was a bit worried that my dad wouldn’t enjoy it, because he had never expressed an interest in either the films or the books. But toward the end of the film, when the battle is taking place and the Narnian forces emerge from trap doors beneath the ground, my dad turned to me in the theater and said, “Awesome,” which proved my worries had been for naught. And once it was over, he admitted that he had enjoyed it quite a lot, and we bought the soundtrack to listen to in the car.

That summer, we both took a chance by going to see films outside of our typical realm of interest – and it paid off. And ever since, we have both recommended films to the other, and have taken those suggestions to heart, and we go to the movies together more often than ever before.

So next time you think a film might not be worth your time, go ahead and take chance. It just might work out for you.

Film Review: Captain Marvel (2019)

Dir: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Ben Mendelsohn, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou, Gemma Chan, etc.
Runtime: 2hr4min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Anything major will be marked under a ‘Read more’!

Captain Marvel, the latest origin story in the extensive Marvel Cinematic Universe, follows the titular heroine (Larson) in the pre-Thanos snap world as she confronts her mysterious past and attempts to save countless lives from a danger that threatens more than one world.

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The last few Marvel films we’ve gotten – Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp – have all subverted genre tropes in an effort to stave off fatigue and prevent audiences from getting bored. Following these films, while also being the prelude to the hotly-anticipated Avengers: Endgame, is no easy feat, and makes it difficult to impress the folks who expect these films to keep getting bigger and better. Captain Marvel treads familiar ground and largely sticks to a known formula, but offers up a couple of surprises and manages to give a fresh, 90’s-infused twist to the standard superhero origin story as we are introduced to the fearless heroine who might hold the future of the Avengers in her fire-shootin’ hands.

This film starts off a little slow, in large part thanks to some info-dumping that drags the opening out a bit – but it levels out once the focus is centered on “Vers,” as our butt-kicking former pilot and current badass is known. It might be tough for some audience members to connect with Captain Marvel at first, since her introduction comes a few weeks before the most anticipated film in the MCU’s history, and this installment takes us back to an era before Nick Fury’s eyepatch instead of moving the overall narrative ahead. It does reference other Marvel films, but thankfully avoids obnoxious fan-service levels of pandering. The frequent 90’s references, nods to a bygone era that fans my age know so well from our own childhoods, do start to feel a little tired at times. Blockbuster and slow loading screens were a nice touch and hit some comedic notes, but once I saw Troll dolls and a Koosh ball, it got old.

Larson plays the role of Carol with an affable charm, tossing out jokes in the heat of battle one moment, then slamming enemies into walls with her photon rays the next. But there’s also a softness to her, especially when it comes to her lost past; she may be a great fighter, but she has demons to face, though she manages to avoid drowning in the same angst that many an Avenger has succumbed to. Her personality slides easily into a rapport with a young Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, as the two team up to keep power from falling into the hands of a dangerous foe. The de-aging used on the actors (both Jackson and Clark Gregg) in order to make them fit into the timeline isn’t a major distraction except for a couple of dodgy moments, which is a credit to both the makeup and special effects teams. The cast overall is great, both lead and supporting – and a couple of familiar faces pop up, who viewers might not have expected to see.

The narrative hits familiar beats – a hero struggling with her identity, a villain who seeks retribution, intergalactic battles, blue people, you know, the usual standard fare – but just when it seems that it’s going to be the same-old, same-old, a wrench gets thrown into the mix that makes the story veer off onto a new track. The fight scenes are cool, the drama compelling, and the pacing smooths out after the first half hour or so. So while there might be some turbulence at the start of the film, it doesn’t last long, and Captain Marvel transforms into a thrilling ride that aims to add another vital piece to the puzzle that is the MCU.

As a female who has seen just about every Marvel film on premiere night since 2010, and who wrote one of her film class final papers on Black Widow in The Avengers – I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing a strong woman kick ass on the silver screen. And Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel can duke it out with the best of them. All that remains is to see what part she plays in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame – and I’m confident she will be a shining torch of hope for the future of the MCU.

Overall rating: 8/10

SPOILERS BELOW, BEWARE!

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Best Picture Countdown #1: The Favourite

“I have sent for some lobsters. I thought we could race them and then eat them.”Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite (2018)

Of all eight films nominated for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, Yorgos Lanthimos’s semi-ridiculous period dramedy The Favourite impressed me the most. A thrilling combination of absurd comedy, stellar dialogue, and engaging, unique characters, The Favorite “re-imagines” authentic historical figures and events from the early 18th century, exploring the complex relationship between lifelong friends Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill and the unexpected arrival of a distant cousin who challenges Churchill’s place as the queen’s “favourite.”

MV5BOTA1MTY0MDYxMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzY5MTk2NjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_The Favourite also features a dramatic duck race and a group of men hurling oranges at a naked dude. So, that’s the type of film it is. Yorgos Lanthimos’s visionary directorial style and the wry black humor of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – or, in this case, their cup of bowel-inflaming hot cocoa – but I found this enchantingly-bizarre film utterly riveting from start to finish. The dialogue in particular is a highlight, with historical speech patterns and trends interspersed with and influenced by current, more modern humor. It’s a jarring combination at first, but gives the film a comedic edge and a unique flair that sets it apart from the other nominees, especially because The Favourite also digs into the emotional, giving depth and motivation to the individual characters, and making their interactions all the more compelling, especially as the rivalry between Sarah and Abigail builds and tensions ignite to life-ruining proportions.

The film’s cast is led by a trio of prolific actresses – Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Lady of Marlborough, and Emma Stone as Abigail Hill – and their performances are a roaring success, considering each earned an acting nomination. Regina King seems to be the one to beat in the Supporting Actress category for her turn in If Beale Street Could Talk, but my personal choice is Weisz. Her sharp performance as Lady Marlborough, rife with cutting wit, simmering rage, and festering envy mixed with careful aloofness to mask buried pain blazes against Stone’s desperate, calculated Abigail Hill who seeks to do whatever it takes to reclaim her lost status. Stone is excellent as well, in a role very unlike her usual fare, but I think cast-mate Weisz just edges her out.

Colman dominates the screen as the often-hysterical, but oddly-lovable Queen Anne. Her performance as the troubled monarch, who led a life “stalked by tragedy,” is defined by a scene where she sits on the cusp of a party, all dressed up in finery yet confined to a wheelchair, and watches as her guests and courtesans dance and engage without her as the music swells through the room. That scene alone made her my favorite for the Best Actress race, as well as the scene of her explaining her “children” to Abigail. Nicholas Hoult also deserves a shout-out for his performance as Harley, where he is nearly unrecognizable in a powdered wig and full makeup. His interactions with Weisz and Stone are a major comedic plus.

This film, like many fellow Best Picture nominees, is “based on true events,” and much of it cannot be proven as accurate. However, The Favourite does not present itself as a “blow-by-blow” representation of history, nor does it market itself as a faithful representation. I don’t even think it says “based on true events” on any of the posters or taglines I’ve seen for the film, so I doubt it’s part of the marketing strategy. The people depicted in the film are real, as are several of the events surrounding it, but it never tries to convince the audience that any of it is true. And that is the best kind of historical adaptation. One that tells its own narrative influenced by reality without carelessly inserting potential defamation or pushing any sort of underlying agenda, and it makes the audience more interested in what the “truth” really is. Despite his masterful vision, director Yorgos Lanthimos is a bit of a dark horse in the Oscar race, but when it comes to a film this weird, anything can happen.

On the surface – which does matter when it comes to film – The Favourite is an all-around outstanding production. It’s gorgeous to look at; beautifully shot. The set design, the costumes, the lighting… in a scene where Stone’s character is covered in mud, I felt as though I could smell the stinking sludge on her clothes, or the beef slab being slapped onto Queen Anne’s ailing leg, or the scent of smoke when Weisz is practicing her aim. The footsteps tapping through the halls as the characters move about create both a sense of foreboding and anticipation. And the music is great, including several famous baroque and classical composers and what I believe to be a snippet from one of my favorite Camille Saint-Saëns symphonies, also prominently featured in Babe (1995). You know – the talking pig movie. Anyway…

The Favourite has earned glowing praise from critics and audiences, but when it comes to the ultimate battle on Oscar night, it faces brutal competition. Roma certainly seems poised to win, which would be a much-deserved victory. But for this viewer, The Favourite has emerged as top film for the Best Picture race, and even if it does not take home that treasured honor, I am predicting it will go 4 for 10 on the night, though I won’t protest to a couple more.

 

Oscar Nominations: 10
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actress (Colman)
Best Supporting Actress (Stone & Weisz)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Cinematography
Best Production Design
Best Costume Design
Best Film Editing 

 

 

Best Picture Countdown #2: BlackKklansman

“I just want to leave you, sisters and brothers, with these last words. If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, who am I? If not now, when? And if not you, who? We need an undying love for black people, wherever we may be. All power to all the people.”Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture in BlackKklansman (2018)

Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, Spike Lee’s comedy-drama BlackKklansman follows an African-American police officer who infiltrates and exposes the Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK in the 1970’s. Though some artistic liberties are taken with the true story – timelines skewed, characters created, and events swapped around to enhance drama – this film provides valuable insight into race relations in the 1970’s and ties it in with social and political issues that continue to this day.

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The writing – which won the BAFTA for Adapted Screenplay – features witty, cutting dialogue, moments of genuine humor and arm-gripping terror, relevant real-world situations, and excellent rapport between the two leads, John David Washington as Stallworth and Adam Driver as his partner, Flip. Though Driver is the sole acting nominee for the film, and faces the likely insurmountable task of toppling Mahershala Ali for the Best Supporting Actor award, the entire cast turns in exceptional performances. Even Topher Grace, as KKK leader David Duke, is thrilling to watch. BlackKklansmen kept me engaged and invested from the first minute to the last, and it helps that every character has clear motivations and personalities that clash and meld in compelling ways.

It is undeniable that Spike Lee, as a director, never shies away from making a point, no matter how many feathers it will ruffle – AND he always does it with his signature fearless style. BlackKklansman is the only film this year that left me in utter shock and in tears at the end, jaw hanging open and mind reeling. This film packs an emotional wallop and is bound to stir some discomfort from those who do not like admitting to negativity and problematic issues in America’s history, and it affected me more than any other film this year, particularly because it is interspersed with themes, elements, and scenes that apply to society as it is today. Lee is my personal favorite in the Best Director race for his masterful and engrossing vision, but Alfonso Cuarón is a formidable opponent who is most likely to continue his hot streak come Oscar night. Film Editing is a toss-up, and though my personal favorite is Vice, I wouldn’t be surprised if BlackKklansman overtakes it.

A big triumph for this film is found in Terence Blanchard’s score, which is also nominated. Though I was also a big fan of fellow nominee Alexandre Desplat’s Isle of Dogs score, my favorite from this past year is easily Blanchard’s. It lends itself to the film’s overall tone and assists in creating that distinct 70’s vibe. Plus, it’s the only score among all the nominees that I can recall from memory without having to look it up for a refresher, as it stuck in my mind long after the film was over. Considering Golden Globe-winner Justin Hurwitz was somehow NOT EVEN NOMINATED for his stellar First Man score, a victory for Blanchard would be phenomenal to see.

Though BlackKlansman impressed critics and audiences with its “all the power to all the people” message and themes that fit seamlessly into the current state of the world, it’s a bit of an underdog for the Best Picture race and unlikely to take home the ultimate prize. But if this film somehow slipped past your notice when it hit the big screen this past summer, I highly recommend you see it – even if you’re unfamiliar with Spike Lee’s work or the true events behind this “crazy, outrageous, incredible” story. Overall, I am predicting that BlackKlansman will go 2 for 6 on the night.

Oscar Nominations: 6
Best Picture
Best Supporting Actor (Driver)
Best Director
Best Original Score
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Film Editing

Best Picture Countdown #4: A Star is Born

“Music is essentially twelve notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over. All the artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes.”Sam Elliott as Bobby Maine in A Star is Born (2018)

Early into awards-speculation season, Bradley Cooper’s highly-anticipated directorial debut A Star is Born seemed a clear front-runner for some big trophies, but as awards season reaches its peak, the film has become more of an underdog. The latest in a string of four remakes, A Star is Born chronicles the turbulent love story of rock star Jackson Maine and aspiring songstress Ally – played by vocal powerhouse Lady Gaga – as they struggle to balance the pressures of fame and their personal demons while preserving their relationship and passion for music.

220px-A_Star_is_BornThis film manages a monumental achievement in telling a story that has been told before, yet still making it emotionally engrossing for the viewer. I personally had some issues with the ideas presented in the film – such as the message the last song (as beautiful as Gaga sings it) seems to be giving – which spurred some disappointment. But disregarding my little quibbles, the narrative strikes familiar beats and treads well-known ground, and yet, feels fresh and new, in large part thanks to sizzling chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. Their mesmerizing performances make this film.

Despite what might be a career-best performance by Cooper and a thrilling big-screen debut by Gaga, the competition in both Best Actor and Actress categories is fierce – probably a little too fierce. Jackson Maine has to battle both Dick Cheney and Freddie Mercury, and Ally must take down a wife and a queen. But even if there are 99 other nominees in the room that night, I’m sure B-Coop and Gaga would pick one another to win.

And as much as I would LOVE for Sam Elliott – who is egregiously underrated, despite having one of the best narrator-voices out there – to take home the gold for Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali’s performance in Green Book has been stomping over the competition all season, and that train doesn’t seem to be stopping. If Elliott had a bit more screen time it might be a different story, but despite it all, he gives an excellent performance as the growly-voiced brother of Cooper’s troubled crooner.

Obviously, at least one award is essentially guaranteed for this film, and that is Best Original Song for “Shallow.” I had chills the first time I heard a snippet of it in the trailer. It’s a great song and fully deserves the victory, end of. Cinematography also has a fair chance – it’s a gorgeous film, which makes it all the more shameful that Cooper is not nominated for his brilliant directing – but Adapted Screenplay has become a bit of a long-shot as the season rolls ahead. The other awards are all more or less toss-ups, too.

Even if it has become an underdog, and the blazing praise it received upon release has petered out to a respectable glimmer, A Star is Born cannot be fully counted out – not when it has resonated so deeply with audiences, through both the music and the story. It is a film born of passion, and that shines through onscreen – but I have my doubts it will take home the ultimate prize. Still, I am predicting that the film will go 2 for 8 on the night, though I’m hoping it will get 3.

 

Oscar Nominations: 8
Best Picture
Best Actor (Cooper)
Best Actress (Gaga)
Best Supporting Actor (Elliott)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Sound Mixing
Best Cinematography
Best Original Song

Best Picture Countdown #6: Green Book

“You never win with violence. You only win when you maintain your dignity.”Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in Green Book (2018)

Several of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees have endured significant scrutiny and controversy, and the Peter Farrelly helmed Green Book, which depicts the relationship between African American pianist Don Shirley and his driver Tony Vallelonga as they tour the deep south in 1962, is not exempt. But while critics clash over just how accurate the “based on true events” tagline is – resulting in valid criticism being levied at the film- this comedy-drama has been racking up a fair amount of awards this season.

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Much like Vice, this film, while it might not depict 100% true-as-they-happened events, contains elements of truth that shine through to deliver a valuable message. Green Book is carried by the powerful chemistry between the leading actors, Viggo Mortensen as crude, but affable Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as poised yet conflicted Don Shirley. As I’ve said many times before, I could watch Viggo Mortenson spew obscenities and eat fried chicken for two hours and not be bored, and Mahershala Ali is utterly entrancing in every role he’s in. Two actors with boundless talent placed opposite one another in the same movie is basically a recipe for success, but while Ali is clear-cut favorite for the Best Supporting Actor award, my man Viggo, as much as I adore him, will likely have to wait a bit longer for Best Actor Gold. Still, the duo is so effective it makes me wonder if this film would have garnered so much praise without them on the cast. I remember seeing the trailer for the first time, and, as soon as I saw their names attached to it, my reaction was, “SIGN ME UP,” and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

The screenplay – which is more or less a letter of admiration from a son to his father – is a strong contender for Best Original Screenplay, though the category is a tough one this year, and Film Editing is up in the air. But really, Green Book‘s strength is in the relationship depicted between Ali and and Mortensen’s characters. Watching their connection to one another evolve from begrudging partnership to genuine, if unlikely friendship in an era of tenuous race relations is the heart of this film, and likely the reason it has resonated with so many people. At times both humorous and heartwarming, there’s plenty of drama to combat the levity, and an earnestness to the film that keeps it from straying into “sappy” territory.

As much as I personally enjoyed this film, the controversy swarming it’s validity and the overwhelming competition will almost certainly keep it from securing the ultimate prize on Oscar night. Regardless, I am predicting that Green Book will go 2/5 on the night, and do recommend that skeptics at least see the film before forming opinions about it.

Oscar Nominations: 5
Best Picture
Best Actor (Mortensen)
Best Supporting Actor (Ali)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Film Editing