The Films of 2020: Dolittle (dir by Stephen Gaghan)

Dolittle tells the story of Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey, Jr.), the eccentric doctor who can talk to the animals and who hasn’t had much use for humans ever since the tragic death of his wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak).  Dolittle would be happy to just spend his entire life locked away in his estate, talking to Poly the Parrot (voice of Emma Thompson) and Chee-Chee the Gorilla (voice of Rami Malek) and all of the other animals but Dolitle has to eventually leave his home because otherwise, there wouldn’t be a movie.

When Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) is mysteriously taken ill, only Dolittle can save her.  Dolittle quickly realizes that the Queen has been poisoned and that the only cure for the poison is to be found on a tree that’s located on an island that no one has ever seen before.  Soon, Dolittle and the animals are sailing in search of the island.  Accompanying them is Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), a sensitive teen who hates to hunt and who hopes to become Dolittle’s apprentice.  Pursuing Dolittle is the evil Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen), who went to college with Dolittle and who is in cahoots with the conspirators who are trying to do away with Queen Victoria.

Got all of that?  I hope so because we haven’t even gotten to the dragon with a set of bagpipes crammed up her ass.  Yes, you read that correctly.

Last year, Dolittle was one of the few major studio productions to actually get a wide release before COVID-19 closed down all the theaters.  It was released in January, which is traditionally the time when studios release the films that they hope everyone will have forgotten about by the time April rolls around.  January is traditionally the month when studios release the films that they know aren’t any good.  And, indeed, the reviews of Dolittle were overwhelmingly negative.  Not only did the critics hate Dolittle but audiences were also rather unenthusiastic and the film bombed at the box office.  Indeed, under normal circumstances, the reaction to Dolittle and its subsequent box office failure would be considered one of the year’s biggest disasters.  However, 2020 was a year of disasters.  Compared to everything else that ended up happening over the past 12 months, Dolittle’s lukewarm reception seems almost quaint now.

Earlier today, I finally watched Dolittle on HBOMax.  I was expecting the film to be terrible but it’s actually not quite as bad as I had been led to believe.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  Dolittle has a ton of problems.  The tone is all over the place as the film tries to mix cartoonish humor with thrilling adventure in a style that owes more to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise than it does to Dr. Dolittle.  Despite a few self-consciously manic moments, Robert Downey, Jr. seems remarkably bored in the lead role.  Many of the jokes fall flat and the awkward attempts to shoehorn the usual message of “be true to yourself” into the film just felt awkward.  That said, the CGI animals were cute enough to hold my interest and that’s really the most important thing when it comes to a film like Dolittle.  Cute animals — even computer generated ones — help to make up for a lot of flaws.

Dolittle’s final scene hints at a sequel or even a franchise.  Considering the reaction to the first film, I doubt we’ll get a second.  I do think Dr. Dolittle could make for an enjoyable PIXAR film but it might be time to give the live action adaptations a rest.

Film Review: The Witch (dir by Robert Eggers)


Consider this:

After causing quite a stir at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, the horror film The Witch has finally been given a general release.  It is a genuinely creepy and thought-provoking horror film, one that works as a historical recreation (it takes place in 17th century America), a psychological thriller (you’re never sure who is allied with the witch and who isn’t), and an atmospheric horror film.  The film has been critically acclaimed and, for those who care about this sort of thing, it currently has a score of 86 over at Metacritic.  For once, I agree with most of the critics.

And yet, The Witch is underperforming at the box office.  According to Cinemascore, audiences have given The Witch an average grade of C-.

That’s sad but it’s understandable.  The Witch moves at a deliberate pace, it requires that the audience have at least a rudimentary knowledge of history, and a good deal of its horror comes less from shock and more from the anticipation of that shock.  The Witch is a very cerebral horror film and, as a result, it’s not a crowd pleaser.  It’s not for everyone.  Instead, it’s a film for discriminating horror fans like you and me.

The Witch opens with William (Ralph Ineson) and his family being kicked out of a village in New England.  William is a deeply religious man and apparently, his style of Calvinism has offended everyone else in the village.  After leaving, William and his family end up settling on a stretch of land that is right next to a dark forest.  William builds a house and a farm on the land, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) gives birth to a fifth child, and all seems right with their world.

Or is it?

As quickly becomes obvious, William’s family is not as content as they may originally seem to be.  His teenager daughter, Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) are both struggling with the burden of growing up totally isolated from the rest of civilization.  Katherine secretly years to return home.  Twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are both rambunctious and keep playing with an aggressive black goat that they’ve named Black Phillip.  William, himself, is struggling to make ends meet and has even resorted to secretly selling a silver cup, a present from Katherine’s mother.  The crops are dying and the farm animals are just as likely to produce blood as they are milk.

And, then, the baby disappears.  One day, while Tomasin is playing with him, something drags the baby into the woods and kills him.  At first, the family assumes that it was a wolf but we know that it was a witch.

If there’s one thing that I wish this film had done, I wish it had left it a little bit more ambiguous as to whether or not there was actually a witch out in that forest.  The Witch appears extremely early in the film.  The actress playing her, Bathsheba Garnett, has a genuinely unsettling screen presence and provides the film with one of its creepiest scenes but, at the same time, it’s hard not wonder what The Witch would have been like if the audience had been forced to wonder if there really was a witch in the forest or if the family was just being paranoid in seeking a supernatural reason for their increasingly bad luck.

And make no mistake about it, things go from bad to worse for William’s family, with William growing increasingly fanatical and all of the children accusing each other of witchcraft.

At the end of the film, we’re told that The Witch is based on historical records and that a good deal of the dialogue was lifted directly from diaries, court transcripts, and letters from the 17th Century.  The Witch does have a genuinely authentic feel to it.  At no point do you doubt that you’re watching a historically accurate recreation of the 17th century.  That accuracy works in the film’s favor, giving it an almost documentary-like feel.  At the same time, it also means that the audience has to adjust its thinking.  This is a film about people who lived in a far different culture from today and, to the film’s credit, the characters react like 17th Century Calvinists and not 21st century film goers.

In many ways, The Witch is a demanding film.  It’s not for everyone.  I enjoyed the film but, for the record, I can understand why a lot of people in the audience did not.  (And, I have to admit, that even I occasionally got frustrated with the film’s slow pace.  It pays off in the end but The Witch still demands a bit of patience.)  Though there are a few shockingly bloody scenes, The Witch is largely a mood piece.  Almost of the film’s scares come not from jump scenes but from an unrelenting atmosphere of darkness and doom.  Making his directorial debut, Robert Eggers accomplishes a lot with just a few shots of that dark forest, the trees ominously looking down on the humans who have foolishly wandered too far into the wilderness to ever come back.

It may not be for all tastes but I recommend taking a chance on The Witch.

A Dark Glimpse of The Witch


It’s been a great couple years when it comes to what the snooty cinephiles would consider as horror in cinema. Sure, we still get the slashers, zombies, found footage paranormals and even the odd cannibal exploitation, but of late we’ve also been getting some great atmospheric and truly disturbing horror of the gothic kind.

The last couple years alone we’ve gotten such great horror films as It Follows, Babadook, The Conjuring, We Are What We Are and The Sacrament to name a few. We have a film straight out of Sundance that looks to join this list.

The Witch is the first film for writer/director Robert Eggers. Working off of his own script, Eggers’ film won him the Directing Award in the Drama Category during Sundance. With critics at the festival lauding the film, The Witch was soon picked up by A24 Films for a theatrical distribution.

The Witch is set for a 2016 release.

Review: Game of Thrones S2E10 “Valar Morghulis”

“We are the watchers on the Wall.” — Qhorin Halfhand

[spoilers within]

With last week’s explosive ninth episode, “Blackwater”, it was going to take much to make tonight’s season finale to really stand out. Just like the first season’s finale we get an episode that deals with the aftermath of the previous episode and also goes a long way into setting up events for the upcoming third season.

“Valar Morghulis” is the title of tonight’s episode and it’s spoken by Jaqen H’ghar to Arya as the two part ways. It’s a saying in Essos from ancient High Valyrian (a Roman Epire-like civilization which perished centuries before the series’ timeline) that translated means “All men must die”. Jaqen sees potential in Arya in becoming like him, a Faceless Man, assassins who follow the teaching of the so-called Many-Faced Gods. While Arya seems intrigued by the offer her need to re-connect with her family takes precedence over everything else. As the two part ways Jaqen imparts to Arya a coin that should she ever need passage to Braavos to start her journey into becoming a Faceless Man. In another instance that this series still has magic in it’s DNA we finally see why Jaqen is a Faceless Man as he walks away from Arya and her group wearing a new face.

Tonight’s episode lays the foundation that next season magic and sorcery may become more common place than the first two season of the series. We see Daenerys finally make her way into the House of the Undying to retrieve her dragonlings from the warlocks of Qarth. It’s a sequence that’s akin to spirit journey for the Targaryen Queen-to-be and Mother of Dragons as she walks the darkened halls and corridors of the House of Undying until an egress suddenly takes her North of the Wall to find a Dothraki tent where she discovers the two most precious things she has lost since coming to Essos. In what I could only see as a surprise that was kept by showrunners Benioff and Weiss from the press and bloggers (a feat nowadays) Daenerys sees her husband Khal Drogo and who could only be their son both alive and waiting for her.

Her reaction to this event was both poignant and tragic in that she finally has a chance to be with those she loves most but must give up the quest to retake Westeros with her dragons. Her decision to leave the tent and leave behind those she loves comes as her character finally realizing that sentimentality and the needs of her heart must take a back seat and wait. Daenerys comes out the other side a more confident ruler and one whose magic really is stronger than those warlocks who scheme to keep her and her dragons captive for themselves. It really sets up the Daenerys character on a much stronger footing for next season just like last season’s finale did. For all the moping around Daenerys did for most of season 2 the pay off in the end goes a long way into forgiving the show’s writers in their inability to write her character’s motivations consistently. Most likely the naive young girl being used by others for their own agendas and ends would be seen less and less next season while the Mother of Dragons reasserts her authority.

The same can’t be said for one of the five kings vying for control of Westeros. For those who have read the third novel the scenes with King Robb Stark were full of sentimentality but lacking in the cold-hearted logic that rulers must use in order to play the game of thrones successfully. Even his mother, Catelyn Stark, sees danger in Robb’s actions with the Volanti healer Talisa Maegyr. Catelyn knows well enough that Robb could destroy everything he has won and worked for since war begun because he has thought with his heart and not with his head. In what could almost be seen as more doom coming for the House of Stark, Robb cements his relationship with Talisa in secret even though we’ve come to learn through two season of this show that nothing ever remains secret for long.

Back in King’s Landing we see the balance of power shift once more as Tywin Lannister’s opportune arrival to take victory from the jaws of defeat at the end of last week’s episode sees him back as Hand of the King to Joffrey. Tyrion has lost all the advantages he had worked and gamed for all season as even Bronn has been removed as Commander of the Goldcloaks. We’ve not seen Tyrion laid so low as we have in this episode and the horrible scarring of his face looks to go deeper as he finally realizes that as much as he would enjoy running away with Shae and leave the politicla intrigues and backstabbing of the kingdom it’s something that he would miss terribly because it’s the one thing he’s best at. With Tywin now in charge of the kingdom and Petyr Baelish having earned himself the king’s good graces for manufacturing the alliance between the two most powerful houses in the kingdom with the Lannisters (Baratheon by name only) and the Tyrell’s of Highgarden. It’s going to be interesting to see how Tyrion readjusts to the new power dynamics in King’s Landing for season 3. If there’s one thing we’ve come to learn about Tyrion over two season’s worth of episodes it’s that he’s a survivor first and foremost.

Lastly, we come to Jon Snow and his dilemma North of the Wall. A captive of the wildlings and seen as someone very important for the still unseen Mance Rayder the so-called King-beyond-the-Wall, Jon must do the only logical thing (something Qhorin halfhand agrees as the only thing that could save Jon and maybe give him time to warn the Wall) and earn the trust of Ygritte, Rattleshirt and the rest of the wildlings even if it means killing one of his own to do so. In what would be one of several sweeping scenes that show the epic nature of this series lest we forget Ygritte shows Jon over the lip of a glacier the army of wildlings Mance Rayder has gathered.

Yet, it’s not that army that gives tonight’s episode that cliffhanger send-off that last season’s finale did with Daenerys coming out of the funeral pyre with her three dragonlings perched on her unharmed body. No, tonight’s episode gets a cliffhanger that is more ominous and reinforces the House Stark motto of “Winter Is Coming”. We see poor Samwell Tarly (having been abandoned by the two other Night’s Watch Brothers once they heard the three horn blasts in the distance) scared out of his wits as he realizes that the three horn blasts that hasn’t been heard for thousands of years could only mean one thing: the White Walkers are on the march towards the Wall. In a final acknowledgement that as realistically the show has tried to portray the series in terms of warfare and political intrigue there’s no getting away from the fact that magic is still alive in this world born out of George R.R. Martin’s fevered mind as a massive army of undead slouches south towards the Wall and the kingdoms beyond it.

This scene just ups the ante on what we could only imagine what would be season three of the show. Across the Narrow Sea we have Daenerys Stormborn gradually detaching sentimentality from how she operates and this could only mean more bad news for the warring kingdoms of Westeros. The power struggles against King Joffrey looks to be going the mad king’s way as Lannisters and Tyrells ally together to retake the rest of the rebelling kingdoms. Now we have two armies, one living and preparing to go south towards the Wall (most likely to get away from the gathering White Walker horde) and the other undead and also heading towards the only bastion (one that is ridiculously undermanned) protecting the southern kingdoms from a gathering darkness.

If there was a complaint about this season’s storytelling it was that so much of the novel this season was based on was condensed to make it fit in a ten-episode season. Despite lulls in character development with Jon Snow and Daenerys we get major pay-offs for these two with tonight’s season finale. It’s good news that showrunner Benioff and Weiss has decided to split book three, A Storm of Swords, into two with the first half comprising season three with the latter half set aside for season four. Even with missteps along the way tonight’s season finale goes a long way into proving that HBO’s Game of Thrones is currently the best genre show on tv and one of the best tv shows airing now.

Now we have ten months of waiting to see how Westeros and Essos will deal with the events that ended season two. One thing for sure is that we’ll see more people die before all questions get answered if ever.