Friday, February 21, 2020

Fate of the Furriest: THE CALL OF THE WILD

Chris Sanders, animator and director behind such modern family classics as Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, now gives us a Great Illustrated Classics gloss on the middle school staple The Call of the Wild. The movie sands down Jack London’s brutal law of club and fang, retaining its episodic pull devolving a pampered house dog to a more instinctual creature of the wilderness, but making it bloodless and glancingly brutal. Here’s a rich man’s dog stolen away to the Yukon on a Gold Rush dogsled, battered in silhouette, confronted with stock villainy from alpha dogs, until one day he stand with his snout held high as the leader of the pack. By the end, he won’t need human masters at all. Sanders places computer animated dogs — rendered with more expressive realism than Favreau’s brain-dead Lion King Xerox, due to a hint of humanity in motion capture movements by Terry Notary and a dash of cartoon to lolling grins and twinkling eyes — next to human actors and gleaming fake landscapes. It’s all tweaked and heightened, Janusz Kaminski making a glowing Bob Ross backdrop of perfect forests and postcard ready snowcapped mountains, with a picture book appeal. When a dog is dramatically backlit by the Auroa Bourealis, or a mossy cabin is encrusted with the most verdant greens in an oasis right out of Tom Waits’ Buster Scruggs chapter, it’s nothing less than simple a-man-and-his-dog perfection. Here London’s story of canine instincts and the interiority of the animals is more or less intact for the novel’s first half until the second veers into screenplay tricks, obvious setups and payoffs, and a dash of sentimental gilding of its reconfigured, dramatically convenient conclusion. We get avalanches and dashes to destinations and low-key panning for gold as the dog shares the stage with beefed up roles for humans. There’s a wisp of a background love story for two Quebecois mail carriers (Omar Sy and Cara Gee), and a sniveling villain in a pompous rich prospector wannabe (Dan Stevens). And, best of all, throughout the film are the grizzled world-weary charms of a lovable Harrison Ford, whose ways with land and beast show him to be a true Jack London vision of benevolent masculinity. He’s grandfatherly and stolidly adventurous in all the right ways, and such a spry 77 that I’m not doubting a prospective fifth Indiana Jones as much as I was before. (Can you believe we thought he was nearly too old back when the fourth one came out, or that that one was twelve years ago?) What we’re left with is a movie of poses and personalities, pulled along by a classic story’s sturdy structure. It’s no great shakes, and no SparksNotes replacement, either, but it’s what, in earlier years, would’ve been a long-running kids’ matinee picture, a classy, square diversion with the right humble peaks of excitement and charm amidst a relaxed aged stars’ easy charisma and talented filmmakers’ perfectly phony visual splendor.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Flight Risk: BIRDS OF PREY

The key object in Birds of Prey is a priceless diamond everyone’s waiting for a pickpocket to defecate, and if that’s not a metaphor for the current state of superhero Hollywood, I don’t know what is. Here’s yet another movie that tries to wring originality out of the subgenre by swallowing another genre whole and attempting to digest whatever charm can be found by extruding it out the other end. In this case, we get a small crime picture, shades of noir, with circling mobsters and cops, that missing diamond, and a host of scheming tough gals whose competing agendas just might align long enough to take down some badder guys. It’s done up in a half-real pop art explosion of Gotham City, though this DC spinoff luckily avoids the toxic cheese of Suicide Squad and the pretentious thematic mess of Joker, the last two villain-centric Batman-adjacent pictures. This one’s just barely the best of the three, mostly by finding a genuinely wackadoo performance at its center. Unlike Joaquin Phoenix, shackled to an origin story that left lots of room for capital-A acting, but little in the way of coherent ideas, this film gets Margot Robbie in a tour-de-comic-book-force, squeaking and squirming and strutting and pouting and slouching (even, by the end, rollerskating) all over every line reading. We’re never meant to take her Harley Quinn, the Joker’s ex-girlfriend, as a person. It’s hard to invest in the character’s plight, but it’s fun to see Robbie’s having a blast. Here she’s a bubble gum time bomb, a splash panel drawn in smirks and squiggles, in a movie that sets its tone as equal parts cotton candy and corroded battery. The whole thing’s sugar-high insubstantial and poison-dart smiley face cynical complete with sickly cutesy title cards and doodles on freeze frames. But I did like the overt musical Howard Hawks homage, and when she storms a police station with glitter bombs then, later, under the downpour of a misfiring sprinkler system. The movie’s a bad good time, or a good bad time, right up until you realize it’s nothing at all.

The screenplay from Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) is told in a jumble of chronology to bend the narrative to the scattershot personality problems of its main antihero, name dropped in the self-consciously wordy parenthetical subtitle And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. It’s like Deadpool if he was a fourth as self-aware and twice as pleasant company. We get the backstory of a half-dozen characters and endless wheel-spinning setup for most of the relatively slim runtime, just reason enough to give enjoyable performers occasion to swan around in silly caricature performances that are never quite funny enough to call comedic, and never once grounded enough to feel the weight of the stakes. There’s Rosie Perez as a no-nonsense detective, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a crossbow killer motorcyclist, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as a deadly lounge singer, and Ella Jay Basco as the aforementioned pickpocket, a surly and precocious teen. Together they form the unlikely allies who’ll eventually confront the preening gangster played by Ewan McGregor and his bleach-blonde, face-peeling (a particularly, discordantly gross detail) henchman (Chris Messina). When the action finally hits, and the women all work together in a funhouse carnival climax, it’s a fun bit of cleanly cut and crisply choreographed action. The way there is a halting, stop-and-start maze of exposition and vulgar banter that’s both too much and not enough, holding the rest of the DC cinematic universe at arm’s length to protect its R-rated violence and cussing, while avoiding getting tangled in continuity dilemmas. It feels like its own thing, to the extent it can, though it has nothing on the joys of Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam! Director Cathy Yan can stage action and set a scene in relatively eye-catching ways, and keeps the plates spinning fast enough to stave off complaints of the film’s thinness and predictable plot moves. There’s a diamond in there if you can wade through the rest of it.