Critical Mass. Films reviewed: Dolittle, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Les Misérables

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, Animals, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, Family, Fantasy, France, Kids, Language, Morality, Movies, New York City, Police, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2020

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

This week I’m looking at three movies. There’s a man who talks to monkeys; a kid who steals a lion, and a movie critic who monkeyed with the way we look at movies.

Dolittle

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s early 19th Century England, in a village called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Young Stubbins (Harry Collett) a boy out hunting with his dad  accidentally shoots a squirrel. But instead of “putting it out of its misery” as his father suggests, he tries to save it. Stubbins stumbles on a derelict hospital run by the reclusive Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) the legendary animal doctor. The hospital is full of steampunk devices and wild animals — gorillas and polar bears, insects and parrots — wandering around just like people. And even more surprising, Doctor Dolittle can speak all their languages. Stubbins wants to convince the doctor to take him on as an apprentice so he can talk to the animals, too.

But trouble is brewing at Buckingham Palace. Someone has poisoned the Queen! And only the doctor knows the cure, a panacea found in a distant land.  Dolittle and the gang set sail to find it. Can they trick the evil King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) into giving them the map? And will they defeat a tiger, a  dragon, and various palace villains, and manage to cure the Queen in time?

I grew up surrounded by Hugh Lofting’s books, TV cartoons, and movies, and though I wasn’t a devotee, I knew all about the stories and characters. And I don’t love Robert Downey Jr. So I was all set to be disappointed: where’s the chimp? And what happened to my favourite animal, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu?

But you know what? I liked it! It was cute, full of adventures, close escapes, exciting trips to exotic lands, and all the quirky animals (voiced by Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, John Cena, and Emma Thompson). Keep in mind, this movie is for little kids, not grown ups, who may find the jokes too stupid, but the exciting scenes and the fast-moving action kept me satisfied. Not a terrific movie, but a very cute one.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Wri/Dir: Rob Garver

Pauline Kael was a single mom who grew up on a California ranch during the time when movies were still silent and B&W. Her first published review was Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight — she hated it. She ran a movie theatre in Berkeley where she wrote the reviews and descriptions of the films playing there, encouraging locals to see them. She wrote for Macall’s but was fired for not loving big-budget cinema. And she quit her job at The New Repulic because they edited out her writing. She finally found a post at The New Yorker, where she became one of the most influential movie critics in the world.

She’s is known both for the movies she hated (she described The Sound of Music as asexual revisionist treacle, and trashed Kubrick’s 2001!) and those she loved (Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Scorcese’s Mean Streets, Spielberg’s Sugarland Express). Some directors’ careers were made by her patronage, while others lived in dread of her columns.  She rejected the ennui-ridden academic view of Auteur theory, without falling for manipulative Big-budget schlock. She liked trash, mind you, but it had to be good trash.

What She Said is an immaculately researched,spot-on look at Pauline Kael’s reviews,and her influence on audience and filmmakers. It delves into her fascinating life and and undeniable influence without resorting to endless kiss-assery. This movie is a labour of love,  combining vintage TV interviews with Dick Cavett and Brian Linehan, and talking heads — from Tarantino to David Lean — with readings from her work by Sarah Jessica Parker. Best of all, these voices are illustrated by a barrage of 2-3 second film clips from hundreds of movies over the past century that I haven’t seen in a documentary since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2002). (I grew up reading her reviews in The New Yorker — that and the cartoons were all  read — and while I disagreed with her half the time, I always wanted to see what she had to say.)

If you love movies, I strongly recommend this doc.

Les Misérables

Co-Wri/Dir: Ladj Ly

It’s Paris in the high-rise banlieue that circle the city. It’s 35 degrees outside and the crowds are high on the country’s win on the soccer pitch, singing la Marseillaise at train stations. But trouble is brewing…. it seems a lion cub is missing from a travelling Roma circus and the four brothers that run it are threatening a rumble with the locals.

Power here is shared by the secular — led by community leader called Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu); the religious — Salah (Almamy Kanouté), an Imam who runs a kebab shop; and the criminal — a gang of thieves who work directly with the cops. Attempting to keep the peace are the feckless police who mainly harass kids and sex workers. The regular team — an abrasive white guy Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his calmer black partner Gwada, who grew up in the hood (Djebril Zonga) — is joined by a newbie. the wide-eyed Stephane/Pento (Damien Bonnard) is a hick, straight from the farm. But the only ones who really know what’s going on are the local kids, who know every broken fence, every fire escape and back alley — they are watching everything. Especially Issa (Issa Perica) a feisty 10 year old, and his pal the nerdy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Issa is the one who liberated the cute lion cub, and Buzz who records everything from the rooftops with his trusty drone.

But when the cops overstep their bounds and use weapons — which is caught on camera — things start to go really wrong. Chaos reigns.

Can the trouble be defused by the cops and community leaders? Or will the kids triumph? And could this lead to a repeat of the Paris riots of 2005?

Les Misérables (this is not Victor Hugo’s novel, but the location is the same) is an amazing dive into the lives of Parisians in the outer suburbs, their alienation, and the tension brewing there. The acting and story are superb, and I love the way multiple strands are woven together into a seamless whole. It’s nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and, though violent at times, it holds a real love and understanding of the characters portrayed. This is a great movie.

Dolittle opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is opening today at the Hot Docs Cinema, as is Les Misérables at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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