Mourning the death of his wife (not in the books), Dolittle is a hermit as well as a misanthrope. Just to get him out of the house requires an elaborate yet routine treasure hunt plot, involving an effort to save the life of the young Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) who is being poisoned by Dolittle’s wicked rival (Michael Sheen, aiming to fill his limited screen time with a maximum of smirking).
That Downey’s furry and feathered co-stars are largely digitally generated can be justified on ethical grounds as well as practical ones. But it means that he’s often performing in a void, with few flesh-and-blood actors to play off.
None of it adds up to much thematically, and it all has a truncated, cramped, businesslike feel, despite an evidently huge budget and a score by Danny Elfman that works overtime to induce a sense of wonder. Some of Lofting’s most famous creations, such as the two-headed pushmi-pullyu or the Great Pink Sea Snail, have been shunted aside. There is, on the other hand, a fire-breathing dragon.
The dialogue doesn’t help. Downey gets to deliver the occasional zinger, along the lines of “Let me slip into something less comfortable.” The animals are voiced by the usual random assortment of stars – Emma Thompson, Selena Gomez, John Cena, Rami Malek – and say things like “My bad” or “It’s showtime” or “Teamwork makes the dream work.”
The total lack of inspiration is puzzling, given that the writers include Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, members of the team that brought us TV’s brilliant Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
The film is a flavourless broth spoiled by far too many cooks, no doubt including Downey himself as executive producer.
Bad Boys For Life ★★★
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are reviving their roles as two Miami detectives expert at spreading as much carnage as the crooks they’re after, writes Sandra Hall. But this time, Jerry Bruckheimer’s old collaborator, Michael Bay, is not directing the traffic. Moroccan-born Belgian film-makers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have taken over. They’re also in charge of Beverly Hills Cop’s resurrection.
The demolition levels have been maintained, the Boys’ banter is as cheesy as ever and the Miami leisurewear hasn’t lost its neon glow.
What’s more, Smith’s Mike Lowery is as cocky and as buff as ever. Lawrence’s Mark Burnett, however, is not. His portliness, his short-sightedness and his new status as a grandfather present the script with its main gag.
Lowery, too, is being pressed to make a few adjustments to his way of doing things. A team of youngsters with a baffling knowledge of the cyberworld are threatening to make his more robust policing methods redundant.
And the number one villain, the widow of a Mexican drug lord, is also someone from Lowery’s past. Played by Mexican actress Kate Del Castillo, she’s just emerged from 20 years in jail and she and her lethal son, Armando (Jacob Scipio) are trying to kill him for putting her there.
Everything about the film is big – from its wheeling camera movements, pounding bass score, monumental close-ups and store of hardware and weaponry. Helicopters and rocket launchers are all part of the crime and crime-busting routine in this part of Miami. And when they’re not available, good and bad guys make do with using high-speed car and motorbike chases to rip up the streets and send bystanders flying.
There’s no denying the vitality that goes into Adil & Billal’s directing style. They also know how to mix it up with the comic touches and the sentimental bits that are all part of the series’ formula.
The Biggest Little Farm ★★★★
This might be the most enjoyable film ever made about poo, enthuses reviewer Paul Byrnes. Apricot Lane Farms, in Ventura County, California, was a clapped-out horse ranch with lemon and avocado trees when John and Molly Chester arrived in 2011.
They knew nothing about farming. Their plan was to work out how to turn this 86-hectare dustbowl into a biodynamic farm, regenerating the land through traditional, rather than industrial, farming practices. In other words, they were crazy dreamers from the city who would probably fail within a couple of years.
Except they didn’t. That’s where the poo comes in. One of the first things they did was install a state-of-the-art worm farm, producing tonnes of nutrient-rich worm castings. In 2011, their soil was so hard they could barely dent it with a pick: 45 years of ‘normal’ farming had denuded the hills and leached away the topsoil. The October winds took what was left.
The Chesters uprooted the existing trees, planting 750 varieties of stone fruit, citrus and nuts. They sewed cover crops between the trees, to nourish the soil. Their chickens soon produced the best eggs anyone had tasted. These sold out in an hour at the local markets, so they bought more hens but the coyotes killed hundreds of them. Gophers attack the roots of the trees. Starlings eat 70 per cent of the fruit crop. Swarms of aphids eat the leaves. Platoons of snails march in at night to munch on what is left. At times the film feels like a war movie, but John and Molly refuse to pick up conventional weapons like pesticide.
One of the strengths of the documentary, compiled from years of random daily footage, is that it pulls no punches about the difficulties they faced. John Chester’s drily funny narration confides his doubts about whether they will succeed. This is far from airy-fairy. Indeed when he takes up a shotgun to go after a coyote, John arrives at a solemn point of crisis – the death of his own idealism.
It’s a feel-good movie, an agricultural thriller that turns the politics of ecological documentary on its head. Most eco-documentaries tell us how humans are ruining the planet. This one shows how two people turned that around, in their small corner of the world. The science is fascinating, the results thrilling, the message sober and empowering. The Chesters do not want to preach or lecture. They simply want to grow healthy things, and thereby save the world.
Bombshell is the third screen account of Fox News founder Roger Ailes’s downfall, recounts Sandra Hall. We’ve had Alexis Bloom’s documentary Divide and Conquer and the Showtime series The Loudest Voice. Drawn from the Ailes biography by Gabriel Sherman, The Loudest Voice has Russell Crowe’s Golden Globe-winning performance as Ailes, who sits at the centre of the story – a wily, volatile and strategically affable grey spider spinning a web of intrigue, influence and sexual intimidation.
John Lithgow’s Ailes has a lofty arrogance that speaks of a history of taking his power for granted and although the sex scenes are less explicit than they are in The Loudest Voice, their nastiness is enhanced by a grisly matter-of-factness.
[And] in Bombshell the women take over the narrative, and here’s another point of contention. Our chief guide is Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who came relatively late to the campaign, revealing her experience of Ailes only to confirm the testimonies of other Fox women.
It was Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) who set the dominoes falling, gathering proof by taping her conversations with Ailes and secretly briefing a firm of lawyers. Kidman’s Carlson is at the end of her Fox career. Ailes’ barbs and put-downs have been making that clear for a long time and the film picks her story up just as she’s about to go to the lawyers. Kidman’s best scenes take place once she’s taken the gamble and is at home, waiting for it to play out, armour off, nerves exposed.
Furthermore, Bombshell’s script, by Charles Randolph (co-writer of The Big Short screenplay), elaborates on the facts with a fictitious character – Margot Robbie’s Kayla Pospisil, a fledgling producer whose on-camera ambitions trap her into having to say yes to Ailes or be fired.
So we’re not getting the truth and nothing but the truth. Yet these embellishments do it no harm. Pospisil is a highly plausible creation, based on the evidence of those who went on the record.
The film’s director, Jay Roach, did the Austin Powers trilogy, but his sophisticated political films, Recount and Game Change, inform this one.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.