THE CROODS: A NEW AGE: 3 ½ STARS
Seven years after DreamWorks’ “The Croods” reinvented and recycled “The Flintstones,” minus the brontosaurus ribs, for a new generation comes a sequel, “The Croods: A New Age,” now in theatres, available soon as a digital rental.
At the start of the new movie the Croods – Grug and Ugga Crood (Nicolas Cage and Catherine Keener) and their kids daughters Eep (Emma Stone) and Sandy (Randy Thom), son Thunk (Clark Duke) and Gran (Cloris Leachman) – have outgrown the cave. In the search for a new, safe home they come across a colourful paradise with walls to protect them from attack and plenty of food.
“It sucks out there,” says Ugga (Catherine Keener). “It’s so much better here. Out there if no one has died before breakfast it’s a win.”
As they settle in they find they’re not alone. The Bettermans, Phil (Peter Dinklage), Hope (Leslie Mann) and daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran), a family a rung or three up on the evolutionary ladder already live. They have modern conveniences like windows, irrigation, separate bedrooms and more.
“It’s called a shower. You should try it!” The modern stone age family looks down on the Croods. In fact, they’d more rightly be named The Betterthans.
When peril comes their way the Croods and the Bettermans, despite their differences, learn they have more in common than they thought. In this story there’s room for both brains and brawn.
“The Croods: A New Age” hasn’t evolved much since 2013.
Like the first movie it is still jam packed with loads of caveman comedy and Paleolithic physical action. The new one has a strong message of female empowerment and the recycles the original’s theme of adversity actually bringing people closer together. It’s a winning, if familiar, combo until the noisy, frenetic ending that, while eye popping, is all sound and fury without much payoff.
The voice cast gamely delivers the story. It’s fun to hear Cage as Grug Crood actually have some fun with a role these days. It’s a welcome step away from his direct-to-the-delete-bin action movies he’s been choosing lately. Stone brings a spirited and adventurous edge to cavegirl Eep, and Reynolds, as the romantic lead, proves that his comic timing translates very well from live action to animation. They trade the often-ridiculous dialogue with ease, milking maximum humour from the script.
“The Croods: A New Age” is chaotic fun, a movie aimed squarely at kids with just enough jokes about raising a family to keep parents interested.
STARDUST: 2 STARS
There is music in “Stardust,” the new David Bowie biopic starring Johnny Flynn, in theaters and digital and on-demand platforms. Unfortunately, none of it is David Bowie’s music.
The year is 1971, a year before David Bowie (Flynn) achieved superstardom with “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” He’s a one-hit wonder with little support from his record label and a new record languishing on the charts.
“I need you to give me a song I can sell,” says manager Tony Defries (Julian Richings). “If you can’t do that, I need you to give me a person I can sell.”
Sent on a low-budget promo tour of the United State, the singer arrives with a suitcase filled with stage wear—“That’s a man’s dress actually,” he tells a nosy customs official—but no work visa.
“With the paperwork you have all you can do is talk,” he’s told by his American contact, Mercury Records publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) as they hop into Oberman’s wood panel station wagon and head off to try and create a buzz for an obscure artist who thinks of himself as filling “the gap between Elvis and Dylan.”
Oberman skirts the rules and finds the odd (emphasis on odd) gig for his client. In one of the film’s desperate attempts to avoid playing Bowie’s music, Oberman arranges a show at a vacuum cleaner sales conference. In front of a disinterested crowd the singer strums “Good Ol’ Jane,” a Velvet Underground sound-a-like song written for the film.
The odd couple stay the course, criss-crossing the country. Between shows, arguments and the occasional press interview Bowie formulates his breakthrough image, the androgynous glam rock star Ziggy Stardust.
“Stardust” isn’t a terrible movie but it also isn’t, as advertised, a David Bowie biopic.
The first words we see on screen are “What follows is mostly fiction,” and while I realize that biographies must take liberties, I thought the movie lacked the thing that was at the core of Bowie’s life and work, and that’s originality.
“Stardust” is a startlingly conventional movie about a man who was anything but. The film is a generic artist coming-of-age story with dialogue that feels borrowed from other show biz flicks—”I think you’re going to be the biggest star in America,” Oberman gushes at one point.—and music that in no way hints at the revolutionary sounds percolating in Bowie’s head.
You wonder why director Gabriel Range, who co-wrote the script with Christopher Bell didn’t fictionalize the story à la “Velvet Goldmine,” and create a whole new world to explore.
With no access to Bowie’s music—the musician’s estate denied Range the rights to the tunes—“Stardust” attempts to recreate the era with covers the real Bowie performed around this time, like “I Wish You Would” by the Yardbirds and Jacques Brel’s “My Death.” This approach has worked before in films like “Backbeat,” the story of the early days of The Beatles and the Jimi Hendrix biopic “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” but here the absence of Bowie songs is deafening.
BLACK BEAUTY: 3 STARS
Anna Sewell’s timeless classic “Black Beauty,” now streaming on Disney+, is given an update in a gentle, family-friendly take on a girl and a horse who “share the same Mustang spirit.”
The titular character is a wild horse, born to roam free until she is rounded up, taken from her family and sent to Birtwick Stables where she is to be trained and sold off to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, Jo Green (Mackenzie Foy of “Twilight” and “The Conjuring”) has lost her immediate family and is sent to live with her horse trainer Uncle John (Iain Glen).
Feeling lost, she’s unhappy and unfamiliar with life at the stables. Soon though, a bond forms between her and the Mustang named Black Beauty. Somehow, they see themselves reflected in one another.
“You’ve gotten closer to that filly in days than I have in weeks,” says Uncle John. “They say a horse picks you.”
Later, when it’s time for Black Beauty to move along top a new owner, Jo protests. “If I fought for every horse I ever loved,” Uncle John says, “I’d have a hundred of them.”
“I don’t want a hundred horses,” Foy responds. “I just want one.”
And so it goes, the connection between a girl and her horse remains unbroken, despite the ups and downs in both their lives.
This version of “Black Beauty” features a first, two female leads, Foy and Kate Winslet. The Oscar-winning Winslet supplies the voice of Black Beauty in narration, in calm, measured tones that suggest she’s reading the inside of a schmaltzy Hallmark greeting card.
“A true mustang never gives up on hope and love,” she whinnies.
It has also dialed back much of the rough stuff—there’s no enforced labour pulling London cabs for instance—that younger viewers may have found distressing in the original story, but there are still some emotional scenes that will pull at the heartstrings of young and old.
“Black Beauty” errs on the side of sentimentality, favouring uplift over real edge, but while the smoothed-down version has changed some of the details of Sewell’s story but the underlying messages of loyalty and kindness to animals remain the same.
FATMAN: 2 STARS
“Fatman,” a new film starring Mel Gibson as Chris Cringle and Walton Goggins as a hitman hired to kill him now playing on VOD, is another entry into the great Winter pastime of arguing whether or not certain films can be classified as Christmas movies.
Does a December 24th setting, holiday music, a Grinchy villain in the form of Hans Gruber and a hero who says, “Now I have a machine gun, ho, ho, ho,” after killing a man make “Die Hard” a Christmas movie? It depends on your definition and I’m guessing that same metric will apply to “Fatman.”
Gibson is Cringle a.k.a. Santa Claus, a disillusioned holiday icon upset with the commercialization of Christmas.
“Maybe it’s time I retired the coat,” he says to Mrs. Claus (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). “I’ve lost my influence. I’m a silly fat man in a red suit. Christmas is a farce and I am a joke. There hasn’t been any Christmas spirit for years.”
After a string of bad Christmases, he’s broke and forced to take on a military contract making control panel for bomber jets to keep the elves employed and pay his electric bill.
“I should have charged a royalty for my image,” he grumbles.
Meanwhile a wealthy pre-teen Patrick Bateman type, upset that he received a lump of coal in his stocking, hires an unhinged hitman known as the Skinny Man (Walton Goggins) to assassinate (Not So) Jolly Old St. Nick.
“Do you think you’re the first?” Santa asks him. “Do you think I got this job because I’m fat and jolly?”
‘Tis the season for carnage and bloodshed.
There is a message in “Fatman,” but it isn’t about goodwill to all men. It’s an essay on humanity’s failings, a lack of morals or fear of consequences. How the stuff that makes Christmas special—family, generosity, happiness and joy—have somehow been erased in today’s world. We know this because Gibson mumbles and grumbles about it non-stop before the shootout at Santa’s Workshop eats up most of the film’s last half hour.
So, is “Fatman” a Christmas movie? Not really.
In fact, it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. It’s by turns bleak, cartoonishly violent and brutal, all blanketed in a shroud of dark humour. It’s all over the place, a concept in search of a tone. It’s not completely ho-ho-ho-horrible, but if this Santa Claus comes to your town, you better watch out.
BELUSHI: 4 STARS
John Belushi was only famous for five years before his untimely death at age 33 but in that short time his unique comedic quality left an indelible impression that resonates almost forty years later. A new documentary, now streaming on Crave, looks at his meteoric rise and tragic fall.
Director R.J. Cutler uses the usual devices to tell the story. He mixes and matches archival material, animation, ephemera from Belushi’s life—handwritten letters, home movies etc—and news footage but his ace in the hole, the thing that gives “Belushi” its emotional wallop, are the audio interviews that tell the story.
In 2012 author Tanner Colby released a book called “Belushi: A Biography,” an oral history of the life and times of the “SNL” star. Colby did dozens of interviews with the people who knew Belushi best, Lorne Michaels, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis, and friends and family, including John’s wife Judith. Those interviews form the backbone of the film, bringing with them a conversational, intimate and wistful feel.
The story beats are familiar. An uber talented rebel with a sensitive side finds enormous fame—at one point he had the number one comedy show on TV, movie in theatres and album on the charts—but is undone by personal demons. That’s the story in broad strokes. Filling in the small details is the expertly edited oral history who provide first hand details and impressions on Belushi’s life.
Most devastating of all are the handwritten letters from John to Judith that Cutler brings to life. From the playful tone of the early letters sent while they were courting to the final notes, written in desperation as drugs and depression debilitated the actor, these notes, written in a messy scrawl and often containing funny self-help lists, provide more insight into the Belushi’s mind frame that no talking head interview could ever hope.
“Belushi” has gaps. The warts and all depiction of Belushi’s drug habits is front and center but the misogyny of the early “SNL” days, for instance, is brushed over in a quick passage.
Having said that, the doc packs an emotional punch in its final moments as Belushi’s nearest and dearest express regret for allowing their friend to lapse back into heavy drug use. It is heartbreaking stuff on a personal level for them. For the rest of us, as Belushi fans, the cutting short of his potential feels like a cautionary tale of excess and a tragedy of a talent taken way too soon.
ZAPPA: 4 STARS
In the early moments of “Zappa,” a new documentary now in select theatres and on VOD, iconoclast and rock icon Frank Zappa tells an audience, “It won’t be perfect, it’ll be music.”
It’s a sentiment that could also be applied to the Alex Winter (yes, it’s Bill of Bill & Ted fame) directed doc. It isn’t perfect, there are glaring biographical omissions, but the eye-catching collection of home movies, concert footage, animation, news reels, and interviews is an intriguing look at a perfectionist whose gaze was always pointed at the future.
Although this is a mostly chronological look at Zappa’s life, we first see the musician in a preface. The year is 1991 and Zappa is playing at Sports Hall in Prague, Czechoslovakia in a celebration of the withdrawal of Russian troops from the country. During what would be his last recorded guitar performance, he tells the cheering crowd, “Please try and keep your country unique. Don’t change into something else. Keep it unique.”
The movie then spends the next two hours showing why and how Zappa kept his career unique in an industry that would have preferred him to conform.
From his early years in Baltimore, where he made Super 8 films and soaked up the music of contemporary classical composers such as Edgard Varèse to early experiments working as a composer and an arrest for making a stag tape, the film paints a portrait of a man in search of artistic freedom. Later, his exacting musicianship blazes new trails with his aptly named band The Mothers of Invention.
“A lot of what we do is designed to annoy people,” he says.
Mixing rhythm and blues, rock ‘n roll and doo-wop with avant-garde sound collages and orchestral arrangements their debut album “Freak Out!” is said to be one of the inspirations for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The experimentation that defined his career is illustrated by rare film clips from the Zappa archives and interviews with collaborators, including assorted Mothers and Bruce Bickford, the stop motion animator who created the trippy visuals for the film “Baby Snakes.” Guitarist Steve Vai describes Zappa as “a slave to his inner ear,” always trying to recreate the complicated sounds he heard in his head.
Those increasingly complex resonances manifested themselves in orchestra pieces like “London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I,” a self-financed project Zappa says he sunk money into simply to hear his music played properly.
Aside from never-before-seen musical performances “Zappa” details Frank’s war of words against the Parents Music Resource Council (PMRC), his stint as a trade ambassador for Czechoslovakia and his side gig as one of the first name musicians to create their own indie label Barking Pumpkin Records.