Review: ‘The Courier’ (2021), starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan and Jessie Buckley

March 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Merab Ninidze and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Courier” (Photo by Liam Daniel/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

“The Courier” (2021) 

Directed by Dominic Cooke

Some language in Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1960s in Moscow, London and briefly in Langley, Virginia, the spy drama “The Courier” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class, primarily those who work for the government.

Culture Clash: A British businessman becomes a spy for MI6, as the Cold War between the Soviet Union and Western countries begins to escalate under the possibility of nuclear weapon attacks.

Culture Audience: “The Courier” will appeal primarily to people who like espionage movies that go beyond the political intrigue and examine the toll that spying can take on family life.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan in “The Courier” (Photo by Liam Daniel/Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)

“The Courier,” which is inspired by true events, aims to put a spotlight on people who have been historically underrated in preventing a nuclear war between the then-Soviet Union and countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. The main characters of this movie just happen to be spies. Elevated by above-average acting, “The Courier” is not an essential spy movie, but it’s good enough for people who enjoy this genre.

Politicians tend to get the most credit for de-escalating international tensions that could turn into war. However, “The Courier” (directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor) makes a case that spies have also been instrumental in preventing wars. It’s pretty obvious why spies don’t get as much credit as politicians do: Because spies’ work is secretive and undercover, their identities as spies cannot be revealed, unless their cover is blown in some way.

That’s what happened to the two spies who are at the center of this story: Greville Wynne (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) from the United Kingdom and Oleg Penkovsky (played by Merab Ninidze) from the Soviet Union. Their paths collided in 1960, when Oleg, a longtime bureaucrat, became increasingly alarmed over then-Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev’s nuclear threats against Western countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. (The partnership between these two spies was also portrayed in the 1985 BBC miniseries “Wynne and Penkovsky,” which A&E televised in the U.S. under the name “The Man From Moscow.”)

“The Courier” opens with a scene in Moscow on August 12, 1960, showing Premier Khrushchev giving an inflammatory speech in a closed-door meeting with other Russian bureaucrats. What’s said in that meeting is enough for Oleg to do what he had probably been contemplating for quite some time: He becomes a whistleblower who warns the United States about these imminent nuclear weapons threats. Oleg meets with two unidentified American men at night, gives them some paperwork, and urges them to take this paperwork to the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

Four months later at MI6 headquarters in London, a briskly confident and young CIA operative named Emily Donovan has a meeting with two MI6 operatives: Arthur Temple “Dickie” Franks (played by Angus Wright) and Bertrand (played by Anton Lesser), whose last name is not mentioned in the movie. (In real life, Franks would later become the head of MI6 from 1979 to 1982.) Emily walks into the meeting and tells these older men, “I’ve brought you boys a present.”

The “present” is information that’s a dream come true for any intelligence agency that wants to spy on the Soviet Union: A Soviet spy has offered to become a double agent for the CIA because of his concerns over Khrushchev’s erratic personality and increasing possibilities that Khrushchev will start a nuclear war against the nations that are the Soviet Union’s enemies. This Soviet spy is Oleg, who wants to smuggle out information by a courier.

The CIA can’t send an American courier to be Oleg’s contact in the Soviet Union, because it would be too obvious. And so, the CIA has sent Emily to enlist the help of MI6 to send a Brit to Moscow to become Oleg’s courier. In the meeting with the MI6 officials, Emily says that the selected courier should be someone whom the Russians would least expect: a person with no history of working for a government agency.

Greville’s name comes up in the meeting because he’s a businessman who frequently travels outside of the United Kingdom. In real life, he had already visited Moscow several times by the time he became a spy. In the movie, Greville is portrayed as someone who is so unfamiliar with Moscow, that Oleg is the first person to introduce Greville to the city. And in the movie, Greville doesn’t know any Russian when he first arrives in Moscow, so Oleg is often his translator.

In the meeting between the CIA and MI6 operatives, Emily gives Dickie and Bertrand a brief background on Oleg so that they know that he’s a government insider who can be trusted. Oleg is a former military colonel and artillery officer who was decorated 13 times during World War II. He lives in Moscow and works for the GRU, the Soviet Union/Russia’s military intelligence agency. But since Oleg is a spy, his cover is overseeing the state committee on scientific research.

“The Courier” was originally titled “Ironbark,” which is Oleg’s code name as a spy. The title change was no doubt to shift the focus more on the Greville Wynne character, who gets more screen time and who is portrayed by a better-known actor. The movie is a story about two very different spies who become unlikely partners with a common goal: to protect their respective countries from engaging in a nuclear war. However, “The Courier” shows more of Greville’s personality and home life than it does for Oleg.

Oleg lives a quiet and unassuming life with his wife Vera (played by Maria Mironova) and their daughter Nina (played by Emma Penzina), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. By all appearances Oleg and Vera have a happy marriage and are loving parents to Nina. Oleg and Vera are both even-tempered and have mutual respect for each other. Later in the story, it’s revealed that Vera knows that Oleg is a spy.

Greville has a very different personality and marriage. A hard-drinking businessman, Greville is sometimes quick to lose his temper. And his marriage to his wife Sheila (played by Jessie Buckley) has become troubled due to Greville past infidelity. At the beginning of the story, Sheila and Greville have become distant from each other. It’s mentioned several times throughout the movie that Greville’s infidelity has broken Sheila’s trust in Greville, but she’s slowly trying to trust him again.

Sheila and Greville have a 10-year-old son named Andrew (played by Keir Hills), who sometimes becomes the target of Greville’s verbal tirades if Andrew does something harmless to set off Greville’s temper. For example, a scene in the movie shows Sheila, Greville and Andrew spending some family time together on a camping trip. Because the weather forecast predicted possible rain, Andrew was put in charge of bringing the family’s raincoats on the trip, but Andrew forgot to bring these items. When Greville finds out, he berates Andrew until Sheila tells him to stop, and she comforts Andrew by saying that Greville didn’t really mean his insulting remarks.

These glimpses into Greville’s home life show that he wasn’t the type of ideal hero that he could have been portrayed as in this movie. Rather, he was a very flawed human being who found himself caught up in a situation that ended up spiraling out of his control. When Greville is first approached by MI6 and the CIA to become a spy, these intelligence agencies already know that he’s a heavy drinker, but they want to take a chance on him because he can have a very charming personality and because he adapts quickly to foreign environments.

In the movie, it’s portrayed that MI6’s plan to lure Greville into becoming a spy starts with a phone call from Dickie, using the alias James Dobby and pretending to be an official from the U.K.’s board of trade. Greville had met “James” the previous year at some type of business conference. In the phone call, Dickie/James asks to meet with Greville for lunch to discuss a possible business opportunity.

When Greville arrives for the lunch, he’s surprised to see someone else is with Dickie: a young American woman, who introduces herself as Helena Talbot. Of course, that’s not her real name. Helena Talbot is really CIA operative Emily Donovan.

During this lunch conversation, “James” and “Helena” ask Greville how he would feel about doing business in the Soviet Union and what he would do to ingratiate himself with the government officials in Moscow. It doesn’t take long for Greville to figure out that “James” and “Helena” are really spies, but they won’t tell Greville their real names when he asks. And he wants no part of what they seem to be proposing.

Dickie tries to persuade Greville by saying that Greville’s spy work would be “nothing dodgy, nothing illegal. It would be a real service to Great Britain.” Emily adds, “And to the world.” Greville is told repeatedly that all he has to do is conduct business in Moscow as a salesman and bring back some paperwork that will be given to him by a contact person.

Greville still isn’t convinced because he thinks his life might be in danger if he becomes a spy. Dickie/”James” tells Greville that Greville being a middle-aged, non-athletic man who has a drinking problem doesn’t make him a spy stereotype of a dashing, physically fit hero with combat skills. Dickie adds, “My point is if this mission were the least bit dangerous, you really are the last man we’d send.” Greville replies with a sarcastic tone, “Thank you for putting it so delicately.”

Of course, Greville ultimately agrees to the mission. It’s implied that he said yes out of a sense of patriotism but also out of a sense of curiosity and probably to boost his ego. In that fateful first meeting, Dickie mentioned that he knows Greville spent time in the military doing office work only and not being in combat. Agreeing to this spy mission was probably Greville’s way of proving to himself that he really could be useful to the U.K. government.

“The Courier” tends to drag a little when it shows the actual back-and-forth of Oleg and Greville doing their spy transactions. After all, there’s not much excitement to be had when all Greville has to do is bring some paperwork back with him to the United Kingdom and hand off the documents to MI6. Oleg and Greville grow to like and respect each other, and they eventually meet each other’s wives and kids.

The real tension in the movie begins when Oleg and Greville are in danger of being exposed and punished by the Russian government. People who already know what happened in real life won’t be surprised by how it’s portrayed in the movie. (This part of the movie won’t be described in this review, since it’s considered spoiler information.) But it’s enough to say that the greatest strength of “The Courier” is in how it skillfully portrays the often-complex layers of loyalties that spies often have and how they have to choose between betraying a government or betraying an individual.

Greville keeps his spying activities a secret from Sheila for as long as possible. He tells her that his frequent trips to Moscow are because he wants to “open a door to the West” for Russians to do more business with Western companies such as his. Greville is described as working in sales, but the movie never really makes clear what he’s selling. (In real life, he was electrical engineer who became a business salesperson.)

At first, Greville’s trips to Moscow seem to boost his confidence. When he gets home, he’s much more amorous with Sheila, who is pleasantly surprised that their sex life has markedly improved. But as time wears on, the stress of his spy work starts to get to him, and he becomes more short-tempered. And because he is so vague with Sheila about what he does while he’s in Moscow, it isn’t long before Sheila starts to suspect that Greville is cheating on her.

“The Courier” also covers how the 1962 Bay of Pigs crisis in Cuba had a drastic effect on this spy mission. This political development ramps up the urgency, as well as the life-threatening risks, in what Oleg and Greville are doing. The last third of “The Courier” is the best part of the movie, as Cumberbatch in particular shows a range of emotions under extreme circumstances that make “The Courier” a compelling story to watch.

Under the solid direction of Cooke, “The Courier” isn’t a groundbreaking movie and follows a lot of conventions that are often seen in spy films. For example, there are the inevitable scenes of a spy making copies of important files and furtively looking around out of fear of being caught. The movie might be considered a bit dull in some areas for anyone who won’t have the patience to see the whole film.

What’s not conventional about “The Courier” and is actually quite refreshing is that it doesn’t have the tired cliché of the primary female spy character using her sexuality to get what she wants. The character of Emily is both intelligent and charismatic, but she’s not perfect, as she makes a critical error in judgment during one part of the story. There are some veiled references to the sexism that Emily no doubt experienced as a woman in the male-dominated CIA. But since she’s not the center of the story, the movie doesn’t expound on any gender discrimination within these types of government agencies in the U.S., the U.K. or in the former Soviet Union.

Through the Emily character, “The Courier” shows that even though the U.S.’s CIA and the U.K.’s MI6 teamed up for this mission, there was still some rivalry between these two allied countries. In a meeting at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, she is seen giving a briefing to one of her supervisors. Emily tells him that she’s good at fooling the Brits by making the Brits think they’re in charge, because she often plays the part of someone who’s a naïve agent who’s eager to learn from her more experienced counterparts. The point of this scene is to demonstrate that Emily’s loyalty will be to the U.S., first and foremost.

All of the cast members play their roles well, but since Greville’s perspective is the one that gets the most importance, Cumberbatch’s performance is at the heart of the film, and he admirably rises to the challenge. The movie could have used more insight into Oleg’s character to show how being a double agent affected his state of mind. For example, the scene with the Wynne family on a camping trip wasn’t essential and could have been substituted with a more relevant scene showing Oleg’s personal trials and tribulations. As it stands, “The Courier” has a few areas that needed improving, but the overall end result is a worthwhile option if people are in the mood to watch a retro spy movie.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released “The Courier” in U.S. cinemas on March 19, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is April 16, 2021. “The Courier” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on June 1, 2021.

Review: ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things,’ starring Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and David Thewlis

September 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and David Thewlis in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Netflix)

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of the U.S., the drama “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man and a woman, who have been dating each other for six weeks, go on a road trip to meet his parents, but the trip turns out to be more than meets the eye, as they experience arguments, family conflicts and secrets from the past.

Culture Audience: “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s unconventional style of filmmaking.

Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Netflix)

People who aren’t familiar with the work of writer/director Charlie Kaufman won’t be fully prepared for the eccentric head trip that is his dramatic film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” Kaufman won an Oscar for co-writing the original screenplay for 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (which is probably his most famous movie), and he wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplays for 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” and 2002’s “Adaptation.” He also wrote and directed the 2014 animated film “Anomalisa” and 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York.” What all of these movies have in common is that they defy convention and are often about characters that spend a lot of time inside their heads. People who hate Kaufman’s movies usually think the movies are too weird.

Therefore, anyone who watches “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (which Kaufman adapted from Iain Reid’s novel of the same name) should know in advance that it won’t be a story told in a straightforward way, and people are doing to say and do things in a bizarre manner. The movie starts out by giving the impression that it’s going to be told from the perspective of one character, but then it ends up being the story of another character. In other words, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” can only be recommended to people who are up for a ride that isn’t really supposed to be logical but it’s more about conveying atmosphere, capturing moods and presenting themes in an often-abstract way.

The foundation of the story is a road trip during heavy snowfall that could turn into a storm. Jake (played by Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (played by Jessie Buckley) are an American couple who are both in their late 20s. Jake is driving them to his parents’ farmhouse, where his girlfriend will be meeting his parents for the first time. Jake and his girlfriend have been dating each other for about six weeks. They plan to have dinner with Jake’s parents before leaving to go back on the road that night, since his girlfriend has to get up early the next morning for work.

The girlfriend doesn’t officially have a name in the story, but throughout the movie, she is called different names that start with the letter “L” (such as Louisa, Lucia and Lucy), which is bound to confuse people watching this film. And, at different times in the movie, she is described as having different professions, such as artist painter, gerontology student or waitress. The parents don’t have names either, but Jake’s mother (played by Toni Collette) is American, while Jake’s father (played by David Thewlis) is British. The movie also doesn’t mention where in the United States this story takes place.

Before, during and after this dinner, Jake’s girlfriend contemplates the pros and cons of staying in this relationship with Jake. Her inner thoughts are heard in voiceover narration. And throughout the movie, she keeps repeating “I’m thinking of ending things,” every time she mulls over whether it’s better to break up with Jake before the relationship turns bad or if it’s worth sticking with him to see if things will improve between them. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Jake is more infatuated with his girlfriend than she is with him.

She’s already starting to doubt that they’re compatible, and she figures that meeting his parents will give her a better idea what kind of family she’ll have to deal with if her relationship with Jake becomes more serious. She says in one of her inner thoughts, “Jake’s not going anywhere. People tend to stay in relationships past their expiration date.”

While driving to the farmhouse, the girlfriend thinks, “I should be more excited, but I’m not.” On the other hand, she admits to herself why she would want to stay in this relationship with Jake: “It feels like I’ve known Jake longer than I have … We have a very real connection.”

During the ride, Jake and his girlfriend talk mostly about music and poetry. She is surprised to find out that Jake is a big fan of musical theater, and “Oklahoma!” is his favorite musical. (There are several references to the “Oklahoma!” musical in this movie.) Jake also mentions poet William Wordsworth and his “Lucy” poems. When his girlfriend recites a poem that she wrote, Jake assumes he was the inspiration for that poem, and she’s annoyed by the assumption. Jake comments, “That’s why I like road trips. It’s good to remind you that the world is bigger than outside your head.”

Jake seems nervous about his girlfriend meeting his parents. When Jake and his girlfriend arrive at their destination, he insists on giving her a short tour of the property before heading into the main house. They go to a barn, where a few sheep have frozen to death. The girlfriend is slightly horrified, but Jake nonchalantly says that the sheep’s bodies are too frozen to move and the bodies will be moved when the bodies become naturally thawed out. Jake also mentioned that the pig sty in the barn was where a pig was found being eaten alive by maggots. Life can be cruel on a farm, Jake says.

Inside the house, Jake’s parents don’t appear right away. Jake’s girlfriend looks uncomfortable until she sees the family’s friendly Border Collie, because she likes dogs. She also notices that the basement door has dark scratch marks all the way up to the top of the door. When she asks Jake what caused those scratches, he says it was the dog, but that answer isn’t believable at all, because the dog wouldn’t be able to reach that high. Jake also says, “I hate the basement.” The secret of the basement is revealed in bits and pieces during the rest of the movie.

And viewers soon see why Jake was so nervous about his girlfriend meeting his parents. When Jake’s parents finally appear, they start out as very friendly and effusive to his girlfriend. But as they sit down for dinner, his parents say inappropriate things and at times act mentally unbalanced. His mother cackles and snorts loudly at the wrong moments and at her own jokes that only she thinks are funny. Jake’s father is overly critical and thinks he is always correct.

For example, Jake’s girlfriend mentions that she is an artist who likes to paint landscape portraits. She shows Jake’s parents some photos of her paintings that are on her phone. When she mentions that she hopes to convey certain emotions with these paintings, Jake’s father vehemently disagrees and tells her that the only way emotions can be expressed in a painting is by having a human being in the painting. Jake’s girlfriend shares her opposite point of view, but out of politeness she chooses not to get into an argument with Jake’s father about it.

Meanwhile, Jake’s parents are very argumentative with each other. Jake tries to hold back and not get involved in taking sides, but at one point he snaps and tells his parents to stop being so obnoxious. The more time that Jake’s girlfriend spends at the family home, the more she sees that Jake has had long-simmering tensions with his parents that seem to go all the way back to Jake’s childhood.

One of the recurring themes of the movie is that Jake’s girlfriend is anxious to go back home, but Jake keeps thinking of reasons to delay this return trip. Meanwhile, the snowfall outside is getting worse and Jake’s girlfriend doesn’t want to be stuck in a snowstorm. Jake and his girlfriend get into arguments that start to escalate.

While some of this relationship drama is going on, the movie cuts back and forth between scenes of an elderly janitor (played by Guy Boyd), who works at a high school. (The janitor’s relevance to the rest of the story is explained later, but not in a straightforward manner.) There are also various choreographed dance scenes from “Oklahoma!” and other musical numbers at the high school and elsewhere. Jake breaks out into song at one point in the movie. And there are scenes involving diners and waitresses that won’t make much sense until toward the end of the film.

In one of these scenes, the janitor watches a movie on a TV monitor at the high school where he works. The movie he’s watching is of a man surprising his waitress girlfriend at the diner with an elaborate show of adoration, but it’s disruptive to the customers, and she ends up getting fired. The movie that the janitor is watching then cuts to the end credits to show that it was directed by Robert Zemeckis. It’s an example of the type of quirky comedic touches in the story that are best appreciated by movie aficionados who might get some inside jokes.

Even if people find this movie’s storyline hard to take, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is still compelling to watch for the performances by the main actors in the cast. Collette is wonderfully unhinged as Jake’s mother, while Buckley gives some impressive monologues during the movie. Plemons’ Jake character is the most complex because it’s hinted at throughout the story that he has some secrets hidden underneath his mild-mannered exterior. Thewlis plays a self-righteous and arrogant character as Jake’s father, but he’s never boring to watch.

At 134 minutes, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a little too long and could have used some fine-tuning in its editing. The movie is actually written and structured more like a play than a traditional narrative film. But it’s the kind of movie that, if people like it enough, it’s probably better experienced after a repeat watching, to pick up on things that might have been missed on the first viewing. However, “I’m a Thinking of Ending Things” is a perfect example of why Kaufman’s filmmaking is definitely an acquired taste and not everyone will want to go back for a second helping.

Netflix premiered “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” on September 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Dolittle,’ starring Robert Downey Jr.

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Robert Downey Jr.  and parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Dolittle”

Directed by Stephen Gaghan

Culture Representation: Set primarily in the United Kingdom, this dramatic adventure movie’s live-action characters are nearly all white; the voice actors portraying the animated animals are a racially mixed cast; and the social classes range from working-class to royalty.

Culture Clash: A reclusive doctor with the special power to talk to animals reluctantly goes on a journey to find a rare medical cure, and faces obstacles that include more than one villain.

Culture Audience: “Dolittle” will appeal primarily to fans of children-oriented entertainment who don’t mind if the visuals are much better than the storytelling.

Dab-Dab the duck (voiced by Octavia Spencer), polar bear Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), Dr. John Dolittle (played by Robert Downey Jr.), ostrich Plimpton (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett) and gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

It’s not really a good sign when a major-studio film headlined by an A-list movie star is released in January, the month that’s a notorious dumping ground for bad movies. Universal Pictures must have known that “Dolittle” was going to be a dud, even with star Robert Downey Jr. coming off his major hot streak in the blockbuster superhero “Avengers” and “Iron Man” movies. (“Avengers: Endgame,” Downey’s 2019 movie that was released before “Dolittle,” now holds the record as the world’s biggest box-office movie hit of all time, ending the 10-year reign at the top held by “Avatar.”) “Dolittle” isn’t a terrible film. It’s just a terribly generic film in an era when we’ve been bombarded with kids-oriented movies that have talking animals.

By making “Dolittle” an action-adventure film, “Dolittle” director Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay with Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, tried to do something different from previous “Dolittle” movies. The original 1967 “Dr. Dolittle” film, starring Rex Harrison and a cast of other Brits, was a musical adapted from Hugh Lofting’s “Dr. Dolittle” book series. The three “Dr. Dolittle” movies from 1998, 2000 and 2006 were slapstick American comedies—the first two starred Eddie Murphy as the title character, and a third film was an ill-conceived flop starring Kyla Pratt, who played Dolittle’s daughter in the first two Murphy-starring films.

Gaghan’s “Dolittle” goes back to the original United Kingdom location, during the mid-1800s era of a young Queen Victoria (played by Jessie Buckley), who has come down with a mysterious illness. During the film’s animated opening sequence, viewers see that veterinarian John Dolittle once led a happy life taking care of animals with his beloved wife Lily (played by Kasia Smutniak), who died tragically.

Fast forward seven years later, and Dr. Dolittle has become a cranky hermit who has neglected his hygiene (he’s so unkempt that a mouse has been living in his beard), as he lives with his animals on his estate that’s essentially an animal sanctuary. The filmmakers have made Dolittle a Welshman, so it might take a while for some viewers to getting used to hearing Downey speak in a Welsh accent that sounds a little too pretentious for a movie where most of his co-stars are animated talking animals. This is a kids’ movie, not Shakespeare.

Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett), a boy from the small village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, is an orphaned misfit who lives with his aunt and uncle. Tommy loves animals, and is therefore uncomfortable when he’s forced to go hunting with his uncle. When Tommy accidentally shoots a squirrel while hunting, he decides to take the injured animal to the mysterious Dr. Dolittle, even though the doctor has a reputation for being a curmudgeon. Instead of being afraid of Dolittle’s menagerie of wild animals, Tommy is fascinated and finds out that he has a knack for communicating with animals too. Affected by Tommy’s presence, Dolittle cleans himself up, as he notices that Tommy sees him as a role model and possible mentor.

It isn’t long before Dolittle gets another visitor: Queen Victoria’s attendant Lady Rose (played Carmel Laniado), who arrives with orders to bring Dolittle to Buckingham Palace to give medical aid to the queen. Dolittle has a big incentive to save the queen’s life, because his property has been loaned to him by the queen, and if she dies, he will lose the property.

While at the palace, Dolittle has an awkward reunion with a former school rival: royal physician Dr. Blair Müdfly (played by Michael Sheen), who is jealous of Dolittle’s talent and acclaim. Müdfly is such an over-the-top villain that he practically twirls his moustache and gnashes his teeth. And there’s another antagonist in the story: the ambitious Lord Thomas Badgley (played by Jim Broadbent), who will inherit the throne if Queen Victoria dies. (At this point in her life, Victoria is not married and has no children.)

Dolittle determines that the best cure for the queen’s life-threatening illness is fruit from the Eden Tree on Eden Tree Island, because this fruit is said to have magical powers. (How biblical.) Tommy has essentially decided that he doesn’t really want to go home, so he tags along on Dolittle’s voyage, with Dolittle’s numerous animals in tow as they set sail on a ship called the Water Lily.

Now, about the animals. The problem with “Dolittle” is that there are too many of them in this film. If you’re someone with a short attention span, good luck trying to keep track of all the talking animals. The “Madagascar” movies (another animated series with a variety of wild animals that talk) worked so well because the animals were in a relatively small group and their personalities were so distinct. In “Dolittle,” the personalities of most of the animals tend to blend together in a crowded mush, with the notable exception of the parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), a dutifully efficient assistant/caretaker with a whip-smart attitude. Polynesia holds a special place in Dolittle’s heart because the parrot used to be owned by Dolittle’s late wife Lily.

The other animals in this mixed-bag menagerie are Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek), an insecure gorilla; Dab-Dab (voiced by Octavia Spencer), a maternal, scatterbrained American Pekin duck; Plimpton, a nervous osctrich (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani); Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), a polar bear who hates the cold, loves adventure, and often bickers with Plimpton; Betsy (voiced by Selena Gomez), a kind giraffe; Kevin (voiced by Crag Robinson), the injured squirrel that was accidentally shot by Tommy and who has a cheeky sense of humor; Tutu (voiced by Marion Cotillard), a fearless fox with leadership qualities; and Mini (voiced by Nick A. Fisher), a baby sugar glider that’s constantly curious.

Meanwhile, other talking animals include brainy dog Jip (voiced by Tom Holland), a long-haired Lurcher tasked with guarding the queen; Humphrey (voiced by Tim Treloar), a whale that helps navigate the Water Lily; James (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas), a nervous dragonfly; Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), a Bengal tiger with mommy issues and a grudge against Dolittle; Don Carpenterino (voiced by David Sheinkopf), the leader of an ant colony; Army Ant (voiced by Matthew Wolfe), Don’s sidekick; and Dragon (voiced by Frances de la Tour), guardian of the Eden Tree.

As for other human characters, there’s also Pirate King Rassouli (played by Antonio Banderas), who lives on Monteverde Island, one of the stops along the way to Eden Tree Island. Banderas hams it up as yet another adversary to Dolittle and his crew. Large ensembles can work for well-written, live-action films geared to adults. But when it’s a mostly animated film geared to kids, the movie can come across as too cluttered for its own good.

“Dolittle” certainly has an impressive cast of acting talent. It’s too bad that so many of the characters are bland. Furthermore, Chee-Chee (the gorilla that’s a visual standout) is a missed opportunity, since the character was miscast for its voice. Malek sounds more like the minature “Frozen” snowman Olaf than a massive gorilla. The Chee-Chee character needed an actor with a deeper voice to better reflect the gorilla’s intimidating physical presence. Former wrestling champ Cena, who’s the voice of Yoshi the polar bear, would have been better in the role of Chee-Chee.

Although the characters in this movie are very underdeveloped, the compelling visual effects (overseen by visual effects supervisors Nicolas Aithadi and John Dykstra) are the most entertaining aspect of the film. Young children who are dazzled by visuals should enjoy “Dolittle” for the movie’s colorful ambiance, even if they won’t remember most of the movie’s animal characters weeks after seeing this film. (Don’t expect there to be a high demand for “Dolittle” toys.) More mature viewers might get easily bored with this movie, because it wallows in a lot of mediocrity that wastes this talented cast.

Simply put: “Dolittle” is not the kind of movie that people looking for high-quality entertainment will rush to see multiple times while it’s in theaters. We all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

Universal Pictures released “Dolittle” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.

 

 

 

2019 Hollywood Film Awards: recap and photos

November 3, 2019

Al Pacino (left), winner of the Hollywood Supporting Actor Award, and “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

The following is a press release from Dick Clark Productions:

The 23rd Annual “Hollywood Film Awards” brought together Hollywood’s elite to honor the year’s most talked about and highly anticipated actors, actresses and films, and those who helped bring them to life. The awards ceremony, celebrating its 23rd anniversary as the official launch of the awards season, was hosted by actor and comedian Rob Riggle, and took place at The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. In its 23-year history, over 340 of the world’s biggest stars and filmmakers have been highlighted at the “Hollywood Film Awards” and more than 140 of the honorees have gone on to garner Oscar nominations and/or wins.

Rob Riggle  at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for HFA)

Host Rob Riggle infused the ceremony with heart and humor, proving to be a steadfast guide through the evening’s many memorable moments. There was no shortage of standing ovations for both presenters and honorees alike, who included some of the most iconic members of the Hollywood community. Al Pacino took time to acknowledge many of his fellow honorees and friends in the room as he accepted the “Hollywood Supporting Actor Award.”

Martin Scorsese at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA)

After a presentation from her mentor Martin Scorsese, “Hollywood Producer Award” recipient Emma Tillinger Koskoff delivered an emotional speech, offering a tear-filled thank you to the legendary director and producer. “Hollywood Filmmaker Award” honoree Bong Joon Ho, spoke in his native tongue to deliver a universal message that “we use only one language of cinema.”

Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for HFA)

In a touching moment between “Hollywood Career Achievement Award” presenter Nicole Kidman and this year’s honoree Charlize Theron, Kidman remarked that “we don’t get to choose our heroes, but through this journey, I got to work with one of mine!”

Antonio Banderas and Dakota Johnson at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Dakota Johnson took the stage to present Antonio Banderas with the “Hollywood Actor Award,” and reflected upon her realization that Banderas has become one of the most influential people in her life. He accepted by dedicating the award to Dakota, and his daughter Stella, who was in the room to share the night with him.

Cynthia Erivo at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA)

Viola Davis presented Cynthia Erivo with the “Hollywood Breakout Actress Award,” calling her “fearlessness personified” as she takes on the role of Harriet Tubman. Ray Romano brought the laughs as he showered praise upon “Hollywood Breakout Actor” honoree Taron Egerton, pointing out how unfair it is that Egerton is not only endlessly talented, but funny as well.

Robert Downey Jr. and Shia LaBeouf at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019 . (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for HFA)

Christian Bale and Matt Damon turned up to honor their “Ford v Ferrari” director James Mangold, while Robert Downey Jr. was on hand to laud “Honey Boy” actor and screenwriter Shia LeBeouf with the “Hollywood Breakthrough Screenwriter Award.”  Former co-stars Jennifer Garner and Olivia Wilde celebrated Wilde’s “Hollywood Breakthrough Director Award,” each sharing humorous tales of their adventures together on set.

Olivia Wilde at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA)

Kevin Feige and Victoria Alonso joined together to accept the “Hollywood Blockbuster Award,” thanking their amazing writers, directors, and awe-inspiring cast, including presenter Mark Ruffalo. Alicia Keys began her tribute to “Hollywood Song Award” honoree Pharrell Williams by recognizing all of the love in the room, before Williams delivered a powerful speech focusing on the unparalleled contributions made by “The Black Godfather” subject, Clarence Avant. He said that he has opened doors when others would glue them shut and has consistently demanded equality throughout his career.

Finn Wittrock, Renée Zellweger and Jessie Buckley at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

“Judy” co-stars Finn Wittrock and Jessie Buckley were on hand to recognize their leading lady Renée Zellweger with the “Hollywood Actress Award.” She said that the experience of playing Judy Garland was “one of those rare opportunities that essentially make no sense at all, but becomes your greatest accomplishment!”

Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for HFA)

After an earnest tribute from Jon Hamm, “Hollywood Screenwriter Award” honoree Anthony McCarten joked about finding success when he strayed from his teacher’s advice to write what he knows. He advised others to write what they want to know, that curiosity is what drove him to this project. Willem Dafoe presented his friend and colleague Laura Dern with the “Hollywood Supporting Actress Award,” praising the inspiring way in which she connects to audiences through her compassion.

This year’s award show honored the following:

“Hollywood Career Achievement Award”
Charlize Theron, presented by Nicole Kidman

“Hollywood Actor Award”
Antonio Banderas for Pain and Glory, presented by Dakota Johnson

“Hollywood Actress Award”
Renée Zellweger for Judy, presented by Finn Wittrock & Jessie Buckley

“Hollywood Supporting Actor Award”
Al Pacino for The Irishman, presented by Francis Ford Coppola

“Hollywood Supporting Actress Award”
Laura Dern for Marriage Story, presented by Willem Dafoe

“Hollywood Producer Award”
Emma Tillinger Koskoff for The Irishman, presented by Martin Scorsese

“Hollywood Director Award”
James Mangold for Ford v Ferrari, presented by Christian Bale & Matt Damon

“Hollywood Filmmaker Award”
Bong Joon Ho for Parasite, presented by Sienna Miller

“Hollywood Screenwriter Award”
Anthony McCarten for The Two Popes, presented by Jon Hamm

“Hollywood Blockbuster Award”
Avengers: Endgame, presented by Mark Ruffalo

“Hollywood Song Award”
Pharrell Williams for Letter To My Godfather, presented by Alicia Keys

“Hollywood Breakout Actor Award”
Taron Egerton for Rocketman, presented by Ray Romano

“Hollywood Breakout Actress Award”
Cynthia Erivo for Harriet, presented by Viola Davis

“Hollywood Breakthrough Director Award”
Olivia Wilde for Booksmart, presented by Jennifer Garner

“Hollywood Breakthrough Screenwriter Award”
Shia LaBeouf for Honey Boy, presented by Robert Downey Jr.

“Hollywood Animation Award”
Toy Story 4

“Hollywood Cinematography Award”
Mihai Malaimare Jr. for Jojo Rabbit

“Hollywood Film Composer Award”
Randy Newman for Marriage Story

“Hollywood Editor Award”
Michael McCusker & Andrew Buckland for Ford v Ferrari

“Hollywood Visual Effects Award”
Pablo Helman for The Irishman

“Hollywood Sound Award”
Donald Sylvester, Paul Massey, David Giammarco, & Steven A. Morrow for Ford v Ferrari

“Hollywood Costume Design Award”
Anna Mary Scott Robbins for Downton Abbey

“Hollywood Make-Up & Hair Styling Award”
Lizzie Yianni-Georgiou, Tapio Salmi, & Barrie Gower for Rocketman

“Hollywood Production Design Award”
Ra Vincent for Jojo Rabbit

Honoree Portraits are available on the show’s Twitter and Instagram pages. For all information and highlights, please visit the website for the Hollywood Film Awards.

For the latest news, follow the “Hollywood Film Awards” on social and join the conversation by using the official hashtag for the show, #HollywoodAwards.

Twitter: @HollywoodAwards
Facebook: Facebook.com/HollywoodAwards
Instagram: @hollywoodawards

About Dick Clark Productions
Dick Clark Productions (DCP) is the world’s largest producer and proprietor of televised live event entertainment programming with the “Academy of Country Music Awards,” “American Music Awards,” “Billboard Music Awards,” “Golden Globe Awards,” “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest” and the “Streamy Awards.” Weekly television programming includes “So You Think You Can Dance” from 19 Entertainment and DCP. DCP also owns one of the world’s most unique and extensive entertainment archive libraries with over 60 years of award-winning shows, historic programs, specials, performances and legendary programming. DCP is a division of Valence Media, a diversified and integrated media company with divisions and strategic investments in television, film, live entertainment, digital media and publishing. For additional information, visit www.dickclark.com.

About the Hollywood Film Awards
The Hollywood Film Awards, founded in 1997, were created to celebrate Hollywood and launch the awards season. The recipients of the awards are selected by an Advisory Team for their body of work and/or a film(s) that is to be released during the calendar year. For additional information, visit www.hollywoodawards.com.