IR Film Review: THE CALL OF THE WILD [20th Century Studios/Disney]

The aspect of making a book into film has to come from perspective of authenticity to the voice but also the focus from which it came. “Call Of The Wild” is an interesting conundrum since It is told from the perspective of the dog for the most part. Many movies of this sort overplay the ideal for schmaltz or have the dogs actually speak what they are thinking. This has become a progression of sorts in futility (though “My Dog Skip” still retains its intentions). “The Call Of The Wild” does it differently and, as a result, benefits from what would be seen as a more natural performance of the dog. The dog of course is not a dog at all but motion captured but the way it is done seems undeniable. There likely isn’t even a dog there but that illusion is fairly complete especially with the actors selling it, especially Harrison Ford. Now granted like Ryan Gosling who approaches acting the same way, Ford says much without doing a lot of things on screen and yet he conveys so much. What is interesting is that Ford’s character doesn’t enter fully until more than halfway through the movie.

As a result the audience connects with Buck as he is not just defined by one master but is by extension an elevated being of consciousness. Buck makes dynamic decisions with emotional resonance. His first owner shows his teenage years, his dogsledding days are his 20s and his time with Ford become his formative years where he can explore his own existence but also settle down. The scenery is beautiful and one understands why this appealed to Ford since this is more his scene. He feels perfectly at ease.  Despite his want to try to bursh off the metaphors, the idea of existentialism and the nature of being does resonate with him. One only has to look at his filmography to see this. He brings in those other characters we know without calling attention to them. A lot of the words he says in solitary about his son and wife in this movie eerily reflect at times Han Solo and his son Ben. And of course we will always see a grizzled Indiana Jones especially in his countenance but also in his reservation. But his performance especially the addendum enhances the story and doesn’t dominate it. The dog in fact saved his soul even if life for him is only fleeting. Buck as a character is fully formed and the subtleties of his emotions are perfectly rendered with both heart, humor and betrayal so it wonderfully works in context. This movie of course couldn’t have been made even 5 years ago. But this is a distinct step forward in terms of realistic portrayal with borderline natural behavior. It used the tech to  exceptional use for story purposes without losing the sense of the idea. “The Call Of The Wild” is not about spectacle. It is about the journey within that just happens to take place on a much larger mileau.

A-

By Tim Wassberg

Fest Track On Sirk TV Film Review: SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 [Park City, Utah] – Part II

The sins of the past lay heavily in the next series of films from Sundance, all of which come from makers outside the US yet reflect the inherent isolation within the connectivity of society, and the fact that help can be so close but misunderstood or disconnected. From a young man going through a breakdown of sorts to a homeless solider being taken advantage of to an abandoned daughter finding the roots that eventually unravel her life, the path for these characters is not easy.

Surge The intensity of any film is how it breaks its perception down and how it interplayed to the audience. Sometimes the throttle can be turned way up and it depends on the level of noise the narrative can take. “Uncut Gems” is a good example of this as Adam Sandler’s character continues down a dark path he can’t control. Actor Ben Wishaw with his character goes farther in an inherently extreme way but with lower stakes and much greater damage per se in a way. The film doesn’t implicitly say what his affliction is but the mania that overtakes him to do simple tasks breaks his tendencies down to a set time and, interestingly enough, one street. While the character’s logic might not make sense, either in the reason he does what he does or his inability and lack of want to stop his behavior, the emotionality is distinctly there. However without a point of reference, it becomes slightly unfocused even though the viewer is waiting for him eventually to get caught. The reflection in the camerawork is also unwieldy. It is understood that as his amorality and mentality comes unhinged so should the camera style but it becomes so jagged and shaky that is starts to distract the viewer to the slight point of queasiness which back in the day could be attributed in digital to the lack of stabilizers. Now it is a conscious choice but almost takes you out of the narrative. The relationship with his parents, especially his mother, points to a deeper seated problem but the acting and their interrelation is played too abstractly. When the final solution presents itself, it is a question of why, especially given the character’s job (working the security line at an airport), his issues weren’t brought out in vetting for a better understanding or help for that matter. The mysterious element of keeping material from the audience is fair but more was needed.

Impertigore Having seen and interviewed writer/director Joko Anwar for his previous film, the notion of family and isolation are inherent themes in his work. His new film playing in the illustrious Sundance Midnight section integrates a woman returning to find a curse laid upon the small local village where she grew up and was subsequently exiled from. It is an interesting premise especially set in the jungles of Indonesia. The cool aspect of Anwar is that while certain films set in that area could be more inherently cultural and perhaps tribal, Anwar gives a very mainstream horror spin on them while mixing in local mythology. It continues to serve him well even though the subject matter and the graphic intensity are still slightly outside the mainstream range in the independent world. The curse revolves around the village offspring, which reflects in very specific way. To not spoil the plot, it is terminal but overwhelming pushed by the local medicine man. The dark tendencies of what it reveals takes time to get moving especially with the players involved including a friend who accompanies the young woman on her trip. The stylistic elements, especially the cinematography, give a burnt, cave-like eerieness to the proceedings much like the jungle texture of Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” but with more light. Ultimately the resolution gives inherent closure to the characters because the stakes and the reflection of where their morality lies becomes clearer against a bigger protagonist. And like his previous film, it would not be a true Anwar film without a twist of sorts to progress the mythology.

Amulet While in a different mode than “Impertigore,” some of the same themes of betrayal in a form of trust progresses through “Amulet” as well. While the throughline is is mostly clear, there is a parallel story structure showing the backstory of the main character that, although it shows his psychology, compassion and, at times, rage, it doesn’t balance out the ultimate state of his life. The lead character is obviously bathed in the traumatic aftermath of a war but one where he seemed very isolated, likely along the communist block. He is left homeless but seems to have a solid head on his shoulders, just a lack of direction. He is brought to a house by a nun played by Imelda Staunton with her usual masks so one knows that there is a sliver of darkness playing underneath. She matches him up with a young lady who cares for her mother in the attic. The mother has an affliction. But it turns out to be much more than that. The movie progresses down the rabbit hole with distinct aplomb save for the flashbacks which needed to be flushed out a little more. Eventually the film becomes more abstract, not overly but where it alters the perception of what the character might be seeing and what his motivations are. This if course might be in his head but the penance required is an interesting conundrum.

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: SPIDERMAN – FAR FROM HOME [Sony/Marvel]

The texture of a superhero is the essence of decision making. The interesting progression of “Spiderman: Far From Home” operates in the realm of naivete. Having done interviews for the original Spiderman films from Sam Raimi but never really watching Andrew Garfield’s version, Tom Holland’s approach is one almost of innocent bewilderment which in turn gives him a sense of awe. One of the most affecting moments in an earlier “Avengers” film is when Holland looks at Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark as he is disappearing with a questioning line. But that establishes such a structure that perhaps earlier Spiderman films didn’t have: a connection to others and a larger world. This is likely what will fuel the Black Widow film with Scarlet Johannson since it will bring that essence of story and time to that film. Here the idiom that perpetrated the entire Sam Raimi film is pushed in the background but still rings clear: “with great power comes great responsibility. In trying not to give too much away, Tony Stark, not Iron Man, looms heavily over decisions here…and even perceptions. It is an interesting approach especially when decisions involve “Edith” and aspects of instinct and conscience.

The basic plot without giving too much away is that Peter Parker just wants to be a regular guy and go on a class trip to Europe to tell MJ (played by Zendaya) that he really likes her. While the banter between him and her and, by extension, his best friend and his perspective girlfriend for the trip works in a comic romantic comedy way, the stakes are not that thick, which is alright. The realization is that “Far From Home” nicely plays much lighter than, of course, the “Avengers” films which within their structure have a very dark core while still playing to mainstream structure. Here the threat is paradoxical in a way but one that is unexpected in one way but not in another. During an interview I did with Jake Gyllenhaal for “Stronger” a couple years back, he referenced that he always found it hard to play a superhero (and it seems he had been offered others) that weren’t real per se. That is why the progression here is an interesting exercise (which is all I can say). Any other discussions of heartbreak, destruction, expectation, subversion or transcendence will give away too much but the film does include all of these without becoming too, in a word, tragic. And that is a good thing. Especially when Jon Favreau can bring some fun comic relief without impacting or altering what the story is truly about.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: DUMBO [Disney]

The texture of “Dumbo” is an unusual one. The original, one of the first films from the animation studio at Disney, was barely a feature and buried in the lingo and perception of the time. Like “Pinnochio”, the perception was not on reality or magical realism but purely an simple surrealist fantasy. There was an edge of darkness for sure but yet the story seemed very intimate. It was not a story told by humans but by the animals themselves. The texture of a mouse and an elephant becoming friends and overcoming obstacles against those who would make them perform. The aspect of the dark world and the unknown coming towards the innocent while blended in the wonder of flight. These thematic bases are textures that were essential in “Pinnochio” and even “Bambi”. Tim Burton creates a mileau to understand “Dumbo” in the modern context (even though the story again takes place in the early 1900s). The story points are sound and the essence of whimsy is inferred in many points. But as a fable despite the ultimate resolution, the essence of risk seems candylike.

Most of the characters are painted in saccarine colors and disposition. In many ways, there is a reflectivity of 1950s nostalgia in many ways. Unlike the previous “Dumbo”, the parallels are in a pair of children who have lost their mother and a father unable to connect after returning from the war. The reconnection of both Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito as a circus ringleader and a big time promoter in their first pairing in a way since “Batman Returns” seems to not have the crackle their scenes so richly deserve. In many ways this may be the way the characters are drawn which come off muted at times and two dimensional but nonetheless the archetypes even seem stilted. Granted this is meant to work in an almost hazy way.

However when push comes to shove at the end, it is the circus folk who help propogate the progression of the third act that really harken back to true Burton when the mechanics of the ideas fuel the intention and, by extension, the eccentricities of the characters. The character that should have the most empathy is Dumbo, and that is the success of the movie since, by taking away the muse in Timothy the mouse, forces the texture even more so. While certain aspects of surrealism from the cartoon couldn’t cross over sensibly in a narrative based production per se, Burton does find a way to include pink elephants (which undeniably would be a good reason to take on the show from the get go) although the matter of approaching them is quite different.

Both Colin Farrell and Eva Green take on thankless roles per se that progress the story but adhere to the essence of Burton. But what Dumbo essentially is is Burton-lite, using his talents for a broader, more subdued audience. There is nothing wrong with this at all…it tends to make most of the film though very passive…effectively done…but in many way inert both characterwise and in a way creatively. There is the essential world building that Burton is known for but even the Danny Elfman score has lightness to it. Again, no problems but nothing that lifts the heart undeniably.

There is a glimmer in Dumbo’s eyes as he watches the pink elephants but that is fleeting. But there is also nothing quite like the moment in the animated film where Dumbo’s mother cradles her young baby in her arms from her jail and swings him back and forth. “Dumbo” makes its story in the modern era through an essence of nostalgia and human fraility but in doing so loses a little bit of the magic of being separate. There is a mythic structure in the final shots that bears ode to “The Lion King” in an ironic way. Also, listen to the final notes of the closing credits where that aspect of the original lingers…just a tiny bit.

C

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: SANTA BARBARA INTL FILM FESTIVAL 2018 [Santa Barbara, California] – Part I

International structure in terms of dramatic tension and the sense of the sublime and the supernatural was an inherent theme in many of the films of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this year.

Maracaibo The texture of lives lost through arrogance or perhaps even lack of compassion or foresight in this Argentinean drama. Here a doctor is unable to process the death of his son but the personality trait that divided them. His life becomes undone because the notion of masculinity and understanding has changed in modern society yet old school values or perceptions especially in old world countries remain. While inherently melodramatic, the eventual resolution shows that there was no divide per se just misunderstanding. The role of the mother/wife definitely takes on an inherent device since her desires versus her idea of how her husband can and should react take on particular resonance in one kitchen scenes. An inherent psychological portrait without too many reveals or revelations yet serviceable.

Scary Mother This film out of Georgia in the Russian arena is an interesting perception of societal norms and intents against a seemingly Cold War backdrop even though it is modern time. A mother is in some circles an underground sensation with her obscene but profound writing. But her process by which to intercede her life and then makes it a build of darkness for her creativity is an interesting one. She is willing ti sacrifice her family to find that balance. Her use of her relationship with her father in terms of both his expectation and dominance is interesting since he almost paints the portrait of why the writing speaks to inherent ego, especially when he believes it is a man writing the prose. Her family provides an interesting funnel of maturity especially the daughter who looks at life in a tecture more practical than her mother while the reflexity of smart phones and how apps can make you look older seems to shun the mother almost as if she were reflecting as Medusa to her reflection. She speaks of mythological creatures and her writing space is bathed in red suggesting an almost purgatory. There are some interesting ideas in this tome, many of which don’t come to fruition while others linger with the audience.

Grand Cur The essence of Burgundy, where a close friend still owns a old house in the middle of town, is steeped in old world traditions. This documentary follows a man of wine who came over from Montreal and because one of the most renown winemakers in the region. The documentary observes the politics that intercede but alsoexplores the climate problems in a very matter of fact way that shows how unseen hail and a freeze on the vineyards completely can change the perspective of what the land can produce. The science, again in an unassuming way, is explored to show why that land creates such wine but also how any change of it can cause problems because the land value is so high, even compared to California. Ultimately it is a tale of trying to find art purely through the dirt but the details like the fact that this transferred wine maker is not of the country and the essence of the supreme value of the soil and how it has been built or maintained throughout the millennia gives the narrative due resonance.

The Mist & The Maiden This crime thriller from Spain set on the canary islands is part of festival’s crime subsection this year. The way it intersects intellect and lust interplays some of the best constructs in the genre, both Hollywood & otherwise. There is an uncanny beauty to the women and an inherent masculinity to the men so it harks to almost a different time. The very essence of Veronica Echequi as Ruth oozes both sensuality, practicality and ultimately a sense of manipulation, compassion and opportunity. It is her presence that both grounds and elevates the film. The necessity of not explaining everything and indeed laying certain elements of blame on the system works but inherently the essence of greed and human nature plays in. One specific scene on the deck between two investigators laid bare shows a texture of play and strategy that brings to mind the more edgy moments of “Basic Instinct”. No one is spared yet the lesson of consequence looms tragically in the sense of cause and effect or more effectively silence and hiding in plain sight.

By Tim Wassberg