(*homocinematically inclined)

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Wacky New Year!

The new cinematic year has launched with two of the stranger offerings since, well, last month's Cats. One is a costly effort to revive a worthy character that will likely end up a financial disaster for its studio. The other is a long-overdue adaptation of one of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's stories, boasting a wild-card director and Nicolas Cage's latest wacky performance.

Doctor Dolittle, the people-averse veterinarian who can literally talk to the animals, has long been my favorite literary creation. He was created by British author Hugh Lofting during World War I, while Lofting was serving in the army and horrified by the mistreatment of animals he witnessed first hand. The 1967 movie musical adaptation, which was itself a box office bomb, is my all time favorite movie. The less I say about the late 1990's updated versions/bastardizations starring Eddie Murphy, the better.

Now, megastar Robert Downey Jr. and Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana) have delivered their $175 million take on Dolittle to the big screen. It serves as Gaghan's directorial debut and, from all reports, entrusting such a big-budget, effects-laden fantasy to a neophyte was an unfortunate mistake. Rewrites and reshoots added considerably to the film's already hefty budget. It opened last weekend to a so-so $50 million worldwide.

I didn't find Dolittle as awful as many reviews would have one believe. Perhaps because of my affection for the character, I could more easily recognize the good qualities and intentions behind this admittedly over-produced, overly frenetic adventure. I expect Gaghan's original screenplay was more sophisticated than what ultimately made it to theaters, which is a pity. One definitely gets a sense of what could have been, given the considerable talent behind the scenes.

The screenplay involves a not very kid-friendly plot to assassinate young Queen Victoria (played by Irish actress-of-the-moment Jessie Buckley) that Downey's Dr. Dolittle is recruited to thwart. Various animals with the voices of such big names as Tom Holland, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer and, most winningly, John Cena (as a polar bear) help the good doctor search for a mythical, life-giving plant that Dolittle's wife died trying to find. Their quest faces opposition from a villainous royal physician (Michael Sheen) as well as Dolittle's father-in-law (an under-utilized Antonio Banderas), plus a fire-breathing dragon with a severe case of constipation.

To be fair, the many young children at the screening I attended laughed often and could be overheard declaring how much they enjoyed the movie upon exiting the theater. The CG critters are realistically rendered and the film's vibrant color scheme dazzles. Sadly, Downey gives an underwhelming performance in the title role and speaks in a whispery Scottish (?) brogue. All in all, Dolittle isn't bad but it clearly could have been so much better.

Speaking of vibrant color schemes, this weekend's weird new theatrical release is Color Out of Space. Based on a highly regarded novella by horror/sci-fi writer H.P. Lovecraft, it details the traumatic effects of a meteorite crash on the inhabitants of a remote farmhouse. This is a more lavish production than a previous American adaptation in 1988 retitled The Curse, which many Lovecraft fans don't consider worthy of the source material.

Cult director Richard Stanley, best known for having been removed from the helm of 1996's bizarre remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, largely redeems himself with this beautifully photographed (by Steve Annis) creepfest. Nicolas Cage headlines as patriarch of the afflicted family. Cage plays the role straight for the first two-thirds of the film, then gets to go gonzo as he falls prey to the alien force attached to the meteorite. The juvenile actors who play his three children actually give more grounded, affecting performances throughout. Also surprisingly good is Tommy Chong as a pot-smoking (of course) squatter who first suspects there is an alien invasion afoot.

Things get gross as bodies are fused, limbs get severed, and alpacas are... I don't really know what. While I wouldn't call Color Out of Space entertaining or even logical, Lovecraft's devotees in addition to fans of director Stanley may feel some degree of redemption.

Reverend's Ratings:
Dolittle: C+
Color Out of Space: C

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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