Film Review: “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch”

Starring the Voice of: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones and Kenan Thompson
Directed By: Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney
Rated: PG
Running Time: 90 minutes
Universal Pictures

“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” is a moderately safe viewing experience for children. I say this because the past several films churned out by Illumination have been less than stellar with questionable ethics, and they were more about selling toys than they were about telling a genuine story. Illumination has managed to create a crowd pleaser for kids new to the story. But while its super sugary goodness may satisfy kids, it’ll certainly give their parents a toothache.

“The Grinch” is fairly similar to the book and the television special that followed, give or take a few creative liberties that are equally distracting or amusing. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the furry green creature that loathes Christmas, and honestly does a spectacular job. He’s likeable, yet cruel, as well as casually dorky, yet firm with his voice. The rest of the voice talent, Kenan Thompson, Rashida Jones, and others, feel like they were only given a few hours to rehearse and read their lines.

When taking into account, the films based on Dr. Seuss’ work, “The Grinch” stands firmly near at the top by default. It’s not gross and obnoxious like the live-action “Cat in the Hat” or a complete misfire like “The Lorax,” another Illumination film. It’s possible the studio learned from those mistakes, catering towards fans of the original work while making sure they didn’t make it to obnoxiously modern with pop-culture references.

The criticisms of commercialism aren’t lost on the 2018 update on Dr. Seuss’ classic tale. “The Grinch” spends several moments touching upon how the title character is transfixed on the buying, receiving and gluttony of the holidays. It’s the viewpoint of a curmudgeon who’s spent his life loathing a holiday that’s beloved by all. You probably know the story by now about how the cynic softens and how his heart grows multiple sizes by the tales end. It’s hard to take that message at face value when Illumination’s only reason for retelling this tale is for financial reasons.

There are several attempts by the creative team to inject some original, unique ideas into the timeless tale, but only one seems to actually stick. The idea that the Grinch is an orphan, whose deep-seated dislike for Christmas stems from his parentless childhood and the PTSD that follows helps bring everything around in a more complete circle. Other subplots brought in to help the movie don’t resonate at all, like a group of kids in town plan on capturing Santa or Cindy Lou Who’s mom who’s in desperate need of some R&R.

Just like Ron Howard’s film in 2000, this film doesn’t hold a candle to the 1966 television classic. But with television sliding to the wayside with the rising of streaming services, “The Grinch” actually has a legitimate shot at replacing that hand drawn classic. “The Grinch” is bright, flashy and silly; a perfect combination for young children who’ve had their parents read them the Dr. Seuss’ book throughout their young life during the holidays. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of comment that could get a critic crucified in the domain of public opinion, but anytime Dr. Seuss’ works are adapted for TV or screen, it’s a cash grab regardless of how good and wholesome the final product is.

Film Review – “The Death of Stalin”

THE DEATH OF STALIN
Starring:  Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Risebourough, Rupert Friend and Jason Isaacs
Directed by:  Armando Iannucci
Rated:  R
Running time:  106 mins.

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

In the Soviet loop. Armando Iannucci brings his breakneck quips and futile power plays to Stalin’s final days in The Death of Stalin, a darkly hilarious take on a moment in history handled by a collection of top notch actors.

In 1953 Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) sits atop a well oiled oppression machine. He doles out hit lists to his gulags on a daily basis and even among his closest confidants he wields terrifying power. Steve Buscemi’s sycophantic Khrushchev takes personal notes on what jokes bombed in his company so as not to repeat his mistakes. Inconveniently Khrushchev and company find their leader face down and on death’s door in a puddle of his own piss. With no official recourse for succession, the jockeying for power—and chewing of the considerable scenery—begins.

Filling out this Stalin’s cabinet with Buscemi is a dream team lineup of Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin (my favorite Python!), Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Isaacs. To Iannucci’s credit none of the actors in this film are asked to adopt any sort of Russian or even any shared accent which only adds to the air of chaos in the party and likely is what frees up these actors to stay absolutely focused on the script’s fast and fierce comic timing. Additionally just when you’re getting the rhythm of this first set of yes-men, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend are imported in as Stalin’s wayward offspring to inject even more manic energy into the proceedings. Friend in particular is a revelation as Vasily, a bellowing drunkard who arrives landing insults with surgical precision and more often than not, departs by being wrestled physically from the frame.

I had some hesitation going into this film being pretty much unaware of the specifics of this moment in history and wondered whether that would impact my experience however this turned out not to be the case. The themes of absolute power corrupting absolutely and the pettiness of men are always ripe for political farce especially from the likes of the man behind “Veep” and this spectacular cast.

Film Review: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey and Jude Law
Directed By: Guy Ritchie
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

For those who’ve read, studied, or are even fans of Arthurian legend, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” isn’t for you. In fact, if you’re well versed in the British folklore, your confusion will quickly turn into anger a couple of minutes into the movie. While I’m not concerned about the mythology-to-book legitimacy of Guy Ritchie’s film, I’m more concerned about the emotional disconnect between its characters and the film’s unrepentant amount of murder.

Arthur (Hunnam), is born into royalty in Camelot, but not raised by his parents. His power hungry uncle, Vortigern (Law), murders his mom and dad, leaving Arthur orphaned and stranded in a boat. He’s picked up by some ladies of the night in Londinium, raised to become a compassionate and strong warrior. Arthur lives life ignorant to his royal and legendary bloodline, but he’s quickly thrust back into the bizarre world that he was born in. A sword in a stone has appeared and there are rumblings amongst the peasants about the return of England’s true king.

Anyone whose familiar with the works of authors like Geoffery of Monmouth and T.H. White, is surely wondering what the hell is going on with their beloved story. Guy Ritchie has pieced together one of the most disjointed and confounding action movies of the year. It’s really difficult to pinpoint blame on this one, but when he’s in the director’s chair and credited as one of the writers, the blame should fall at his feet.

Hunnam, is charming enough, but much of his allure feels forced. Maybe it’s because he’s much better suited as a tragic hero, which he played for six years on “Sons of Anarchy.” Law can’t suit up and play a compelling villain, and his character is inept and underdeveloped. Vortigern spends most of his time making empty threats and talking to an unnamed octopus woman in the dungeon of Camelot. By the way, the live-action Ursula gone-wrong, is just one of many unnamed and unexplained things, places, and people populating Ritchie’s vision.

Recognizable names, like Sir Lancelot or Sir Galahad, are on short supply as most run-of-the-mill fans will be struggling to remember or relate with characters like Back Lack or Mischief John. Merlin is mentioned, but the only mage Arthur ever comes into contact with is played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey. She’s never named in the movie, in the credits, or on the movie’s IMDB, yet she’s the only person of magic to interact with Arthur and help him tame his sword. You’d think an integral component of your plot would at least have a nickname.

There are inspired moments of “King Arthur,” but that’s only because of Ritchie’s visual flair and when his signature style is deployed, the use of narration over action sequences to condense exposition in an entertaining manner. The action is mostly digital; including a finale that feels like it was created with the video game engine from “Dark Souls.” It must be noted that this movie is excessively violent as we watch anonymous and unnamed civilians, usually helpless women, slaughtered. It makes the specific Arthur subplot that he lacks motivation to become king and save the day especially confounding.

If you were to take away the legend of King Arthur, as the film’s backdrop, it’s not an especially unique action film. It’s a mish mash of multi-national war dramas, “Lord of the Rings” and slow-motion CGI battles. While there’s rarely a dull moment, that void is filled with plenty of stupid moments. It may find an audience amongst connoisseurs and lovers of bad cinema; much like “Gods of Egypt” did last year.

“King Arthur” is certainly an attempt to kick start a franchise for Warner Bros., who’s still unwilling to admit their regret for hiring Zack Snyder to put together the DC universe. There was potential for “King Arthur” because Ritchie was in the pilot’s seat, but his talents are  overwhelmed by a messy script, bland characters, dimly lit settings, and an over indulgence in summer blockbuster movie tropes. If there’s a sequel, I’ll hope for the best, but expect the worst.

 

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Film Review “Deadpool

Review by Mike Smith
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein and Morena Baccarin
Directed by: Tim Miller
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 48 mins
20th Century Fox
Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sometimes you know a few minutes into a film what the tone is going to be. Deadpool sets it almost immediately when, during the opening credits, the Producer is identified as: SOME ASSHAT! Thank you, Mr. AssHat, for making one hell of a film.

One of the lesser known (to me anyway) of the Marvel Comic characters (think Spider-man in red without the webs), Deadpool (Reynolds) is a foul-mouthed fool who enjoys his work a little too much. And when I say “foul-mouthed,” I’m talking filthy. He makes Hit Girl in Kick Ass look like Little Miss Sunshine. Known to his friends as Wade Wilson, he earns his money by taking down local bullies. Things are going well for Wade. He’s just found the perfect woman of his dreams (Baccarin) when he learns he has cancer. He is offered a chance for the cure if he becomes part of a mercenary team. Instead he is greatly disfigured by the treatments he receives and decides to just disappear from those that love him (“please don’t make the suit green or animated,” he tells his handlers, pointing fun at Reynold’s last attempt as a hero, “Green Lantern”). If smart-assed sarcasm is your cup of tea, then Deadpool will quench your thirst.

As a character, Deadpool is unlike any “hero” you’ve ever seen. He has no qualms with blowing a bad guys head off with his pair of nine-millimeter pistols or cutting them off with his twin katanas, he’s mixing it up with both the on-screen baddies and the audience. Between breaking the fourth wall and dropping little “inside” quips – when told he needs to go see Professor Charles Xavier he asks, “Stewart or McAvoy?” If I have to explain that comment to you, stop reading now. You don’t want to see this movie.

A superhero film is only as good as the actor playing him and, if ever an actor was meant to play Deadpool, it is Ryan Reynolds. Ever since “Van Wilder” he has spent his career trying to re-capture that “smart-ass” charm. He fits the bill here perfectly. He is surrounded by some strong co-stars, including Skrein as a fellow mercenary and Baccarin who is as tough as she is loving. And I’m sure Stan Lee will agree with me when I say this is his “best cameo EVER!” Throw in a couple of X-men and you’ve got a damn good escape for the weekend.