Movie reviews: 'Call of the Wild' is old-fashioned action with newfangled tech
TORONTO -- THE CALL OF THE WILD: 3 ½ STARS
In the world of canine coming-of-age stories Jack London's "The Call of the Wild" is the alpha dog. The survival tale has been given a new, high tech sheen in a film starring Harrison Ford and a CGI dog named Buck.
Buck, a domesticated St. Bernard/Scotch Collie stolen from his comfortable life in California is transported to Yukon where he is sold to a mail delivery sled team. "He's not bad, "says his owner Perrault (Omar Sy) after a bad initial run, "he's just got California feet." Soon Buck learns the ways of the pack and for the first time listen to his own voice not his masters.
Belonging to the pack brings with it a growing confidence and joy that fades when the 2,400-mile mail delivery route is cancelled and he is sold to Hal ("Downton Abbey's" Dan Stevens). A citidiot with Gold Rush fever but no clue how to navigate the North's weather or handle a dog team, his animal cruelty catches the eye of John Thornton (Harrison Ford). A drifter, the loss of his young son provoked Thornton to move north looking for solace. "I know there may be no peace," he says, "no home for me in this world." He senses something special in Buck and, as their paths cross, he develops a bond with the hard-working animal.
When Hal endangers not only himself, but his companions and the dog pack, Thornton intercedes. As they get to know one another, Buck and his new master fill a role in each other's lives left by the loss of a pack and a son. "You're not my pet," Thornton tells Buck. Together they heed the call of the wild and head off on an adventure that will lead them to a place "off the map" and to their destinies.
"The Call of the Wild" is an old-fashioned action adventure created with newfangled technology. Beautiful scenery, a pantomime-style villain and a couple of exciting close calls could be straight out of many old-school Disney kid's adventures. Buck, however, is a different story. His, and the other dogs faces are expressive in a way photorealistic-animals in movies like "The Lion King" and "Lady and the Tramp" were not. It's often subtle but a raising of the eyebrows or a concerned look in the eye gives Buck considerably more personality than some recent animated animals and that is important for a dog who not only understands home décor (antler hanging) but also human psychology.
"The Call of the Wild" is a handsomely made movie that allows the story's adult themes of love and redemption to occur without bogging down the part that will appeal to kids; the adventure. Parents should not that there are a couple of animals-in-peril scenes you might want to consider before bringing the young children.
STANDING UP, FALLING DOWN: 3 ½ STARS
Google "homecoming movies" and page after page of films, most of which are called something like "The Homecoming" or "Homecoming: Insert Name Here," about a prodigal son or daughter returning home after a stay away. The newest entry to the genre, "Standing Up, Falling Down," follows all the familiar "you can never go home again" genre formulas but is elevated by charming performances.
"Parks & Recreation's" Ben Schwartz is Scott Rollins, a 34-year old failed standup comedian. Four years in Los Angeles chasing his dream have left him broke and dispirited. Returning home with his tail between his legs, he moves back into his parent's place in Long Island. "The comedy world's slowest rising star comes back home!" they joke.
Without much of a plan on how to move forward, Scott looks to the past, most notably to his ex-girlfriend Becky Brookes (Eloise Mumford). He unceremoniously dumped her before leaving for L.A. and while he didn't move on, she did, getting married and becoming a successful photographer.
His life begins to change when he meets Marty (Billy Crystal), an alcoholic dermatologist who seems to be the only person in town Scott can relate to.
"Standing Up, Falling Down" doesn't add much to the homecoming genre as a whole, but it doesn't need to. Schwartz and Crystal are an appealing odd couple, trading quips with the ease of two seasoned comedians. More than that, though, they are believable and compelling when they aren't being funny, when they are displaying the flawed sides of their personalities. Both have made mistakes that have hurt other people but both are working, in their own ways, to make amends. "Regret is the only thing that's real," Marty says as they work up the courage to face their failures.
"Standing Up, Falling Down" falls prey to some of the inherent clichés of the genre but, like its main characters, it works through its flaws with panache.
ORDINARY LOVE: 4 STARS
In "Ordinary Love," a new family drama starring Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville, the "Taken" star is up against a foe that tests his special set of skills.
Neeson and Manville are Joan and Tom, a retired Northern Ireland couple whose perfect life is upended when she finds a lump in her breast. Determined to ease his wife's journey into the medical morass of mammograms, chemotherapy and all the attendant side effects, he is optimistic and supportive. "There isn't a moment I won't be there with you," he says.
From there the film follows Joan's year-long treatment, from discovery to treatment to double mastectomy and all the emotions that come with a potentially deadly diagnosis. It is the year that will test the stay-at-home couple's bond like no other. "We're both going through this," he says. "No, we're not!" she says.
There is nothing ordinary about "Ordinary Love." It is a well-observed slice of life that celebrates the mundane things that make up a life, particularly when trauma comes to town. Never maudlin and always heartfelt, it realistically handles the seven stages of shock — shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance — and even adds in a few others that accompanies a life changer like cancer. Screenwriter Owen McCafferty carefully navigates the story as far away from melodrama as possible to delve into the more elemental emotions of everything from compassion and kindness to resentment and rage.
Neeson and Manville, ably assisted by directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Lyburn, appeal to the audience's sympathetic tendencies but also mines the humour that arises from the uncomfortable situations.
"Ordinary Love" avoids the pitfalls of many other films that deal with illness. It never shies away from the reality of the situation but finds tenderness in its character's humanity. I defy you to watch Tom cut Joan's hair as it falls out in clumps due to chemotherapy and not feel the warm authenticity of the scene.
THE LODGE: 3 STARS
"The Lodge" may be mostly set in the great outdoors it is, nonetheless, a claustrophobic thriller that plays on dark psychological trauma.
Richard Hall (Richard Armitage) is the father of Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) and the soon-to-be-ex-husband of Laura (Alicia Silverstone). The estranged couple share custody until Richard breaks the news that he has met someone new and wants a divorce so he can marry Grace (Riley Keough). Distraught, Laura kills herself. The kids, traumatized, blame Grace for their mother's death. In an attempt to bring his kids and fiancée to something close to speaking terms, Richard plans a "family" trip to a remote cabin so they can all get to know one another.
Almost as soon as they arrive Richard is called back to the city for work, leaving Grace, Aiden and Mia alone. "Things are very uncomfortable between us," Grace says to the kids, "but we're stuck in a house together." That growing sense of unease is exacerbated after Aiden and Mia google their soon-to-be-step-mom and discover she is the daughter of religious leader and the only survivor of his cult's mass suicide.
They are stranded — the car won't start and the weather has made travelling on foot impossible — as strange things happen in the cabin and Grace begins to spiral. "We need to sacrifice something for the Lord," she says.
"The Lodge" builds slowly creating eerie unease while peppering in some shocking scenes. Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala play up the small details to create an uncomfortable atmosphere. The vastness of the icy outdoors playing against the claustrophobia of the cabin provides the backdrop for story ripe with religious imagery and surreal touches.
As the aura of paranoia grows, so do the questions. Is Grace is being tormented by the kids, or is she a victim of a supernatural force — possibly her father — who wishes her harm? Keough is terrific as a woman tormented by the past, unpredictable in the present. It's hard to know whether she is dangerous or in danger and that pouch and pull is the movie's strong point.
"The Lodge" is a bit too ponderous in its early moments but finds its groove in the haunting exploration of Grace's trauma.