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Josh Reviews Robert Zemeckis’ Adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches

Robert Zemeckis’ new film adaptation of The Witches is now available on HBO Max.  The pedigree of this film had me immediately excited.  Robert Zemeckis is, of course, the director of some of my favorite films (the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Contact).  I adore Roald Dahl’s original novel.  The film’s screenplay was written by Mr. Zemeckis, Kenya Barris (mastermind behind Black-ish), and Guillermo del Toro (a master of horror who is one of my favorite directors working today, responsible for such great films as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water).  On the other hand, Mr. Zemeckis’ films haven’t connected with me in recent years; I haven’t really enjoyed his new movies since the one-two 2000 punch of What Lies Beneath and Cast Away.  What would I think of The Witches?

I liked it!  The film is a fun, all-ages tale.  It’s very competently made, with lovely visual effects and very likable characters to guide us through the tale.

Is The Witches a masterpiece?  No.  It doesn’t have the pop of startling originality that most of Guillermo del Toro’s films possess.  The adult aspects of most of Mr. del Toro’s work have been rounded off (the violence, the scares) — but how could they not have been?  This is an adaptation of a kids’ story!  So I’m not saying that’s the wrong choice.  But the film doesn’t grab me as viscerally as most of Mr. del Toro’s work does.  Nor is there anything in the film nearly as memorable as what can be found in Robert Zemeckis’ best films from the eighties and nineties (such as the movies I listed in the first paragraph, above).  So one should enter into The Witches with measured expectations.  That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the film.  It’s easily Mr. Zemeckis’ best film in almost two decades.

The cast is terrific.  I love the choice to center the story on an African-American family.  Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Shape of Water) is spectacular as Grandma.  (Whereas in Roald Dahl’s novel Grandma was from Norway, here she is from Alabama.  The change works very well.)  Ms. Spencer’s charisma and her comedic chops make her the perfect fit for this tough, smart, maternal figure.  I loved watching her.  Young Jahzir Kadeem Bruno is great as Grandma’s grandson, the boy (whose name is never given in the book, nor the movie!) who finds himself on this adventure with the witches.  And I was delighted that Chris Rock voiced an older version of the boy!  I was not expecting Chris Rock’s voice to be the first voice I’d hear in this adaptation of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The BFG

I adored the work of Roald Dahl as a kid, and The BFG was in heavy rotation for me for many years.  The idea of a movie adaptation of that terrific book was exciting, and that it would be helmed by Steven Spielberg — probably the greatest director working today — was even more tantalizing.

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And so I was somewhat surprised that this big-screen version of The BFG left me rather underwhelmed.  This feels to me like a minor work from Mr. Spielberg.  It’s not head-poundingly frustrating like The Lost World or A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.  Rather, it’s just that the film feels very slight.  There are moments of greatness, but over-all I found The BFG to be somewhat boring.  I don’t think I’ve ever before felt that way about a Steven Spielberg film.

Although Mr. Spielberg has made many movies that feature children, and that are about childhood, it could be that this is the first Spielberg movie that is aimed so squarely at children in the audience.  I can imagine kids being thrilled by the film, but for me as an adult I found it very simplistic, without too much to capture my interest.  There are some lovely ideas in the film and some beautiful sequences (certainly the dream-catching sequence alone, in which the BFG takes Sophie to the underwater/underground magical realm in which one can chase and catch dreams as one would fireflies, is magnificent), but the story moves along without too much depth of character or too many surprises.  What played as a fantastical left-hand turn into craziness in Mr. Dahl’s original book — in which Sophie decides to elicit the help of the Queen of England to help her and the BFG solve their problems — plays in the movie like an amusing but almost distracting digression from the main story.

I was so excited that this adaptation of The BFG represented the final collaboration between Mr. Spielberg and the late, great Melissa Mathison (who wrote E.T.), and so I’m sad to report that I wasn’t as delighted as I’d expected to be by the film’s script.

The one time I was truly moved by the film was in the final moments.  In that bittersweet ending the film finally hit, for me, the emotions that I felt it had been striving for the whole time.  I wish there had been a little more of that emotional resonance in everything that had come before.

Ruby Barnhill, who plays young Sophie, the orphan girl who discovers and befriends the BFG, is lovely in the film.  She spends much of the film interacting with a CGI make-believe giant, and yet despite that she’s able to give a very … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fantastic Mr. Fox

Having watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, the phenomenal new stop-motion animated film from director Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited), I am almost forced to reconsider all of his previous (also wonderful) films.

Mr. Anderson’s work has always been characterized by an extraordinarily stylized look to his sets and staging.  (The Royal Tenenbaums, my favorite of Mr. Anderson’s films, must be considered a triumph of art direction amongst its many other great qualities.)  Now it seems to me that Mr. Anderson has always been approaching his movies as if they were animated films: pouring never-ending attention into the creation of the artificial worlds that his characters inhabit.  (In animation, this is of course necessary: there are no “standing sets” to use – everything must be designed from the ground up.)

Or maybe I should put it this way: in stop-motion animation, Mr. Anderson has found a perfect stylistic vehicle for his particular idiosyncratic method of storytelling.

Adapted from a book by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox focuses on a family of foxes who enter into an escalating feud with three cruel farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.  What is remarkable is that this animated fox family is just as fully-realized as any of the clans seen in Mr. Anderson’s previous films.  Each character is filled with flaws and with strengths.  Each feels, well, human!  George Clooney voices the title character, Mr.  Fox, who is inventive and fearless… but also dangerously reckless and oblivious to the walls he is inadvertently building up between him and his son.  Jason Schwartzman plays his son, Ash, a teenaged (in fox-years) boy who idolizes his father but, sensing that he is not going to get the approval he seeks, has withdrawn into teenaged “this is all stupid” rebellion (that includes the wearing of bizarre outfits).  Meryl Streep is the patient mother of the brood who deeply loves her husband yet must admit, in a powerful moment late in the film, that she never should have married him.

Does this sound like your every-day animated film so far?

It’s just amazing, really, how Mr. Anderson (working with co-writer Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed the magnificent film The Squid and the Whale) has shaped Roald Dahl’s tale into a film whose character drama fits perfectly in with the rest of Anderson’s filmography.  But he has done so without losing the charm and heart of Mr. Dahl’s original tale – particularly when it comes to bringing to life the increasingly escalating lunacy (and violence) of Mr. Fox’s back-and-forth feud with the farmers.

I haven’t even mentioned the enormous ensemble that surrounds … [continued]