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Schultz reviews: ‘Arctic Dogs,’ ‘Harriet,’ ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ & ‘Western Stars’

Schultz reviews: ‘Arctic Dogs,’ ‘Harriet,’ ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ & ‘Western Stars’

Carl Schultz

“Arctic Dogs” Distributed by Entertainment Studios, 93 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Nov. 1:

The voices of a number of familiar actors add little to “Arctic Dogs,” the first computer-animated feature from Entertainment Studios. Entertainment Studios is the independent media company founded in 1993 by comic Byron Allen to challenge the major motion picture companies.

In “Arctic Dogs,” an Arctic fox named Swifty works in the mailroom of the Arctic Blast Delivery Service, but has dreams of becoming one of the company’s husky couriers. As a means of proving himself, Swifty steals a sled to deliver a mysterious package to a remote location, and inadvertently stumbles a nefarious plot devised by the evil Otto Van Walrus to melt the polar ice cap and take over the world. The ambitious fox needs to enlist the aid of his friends to foil the plot and save the world.

In development for some four years and produced on a relatively hefty budget (for Entertainment Studios) of $50 million, “Arctic Dogs” will likely be enjoyable for its target audience of very young children, but tough sledding for others — particularly adults. The animation is often makeshift and incomplete, with continuity errors so plain that they’re nearly impossible to ignore. Moreover, the design of many of the characters renders them uncomfortably similar to the residents of “Zootopia,” the 2016 animated feature from Walt Disney Studios  

Seemingly as a substitute to detract attention from the inferior quality of the animation, the producers hired a cast of familiar names to voice the characters. But while some parents might recognize the voices of, say, Alec Baldwin as Swifty’s polar bear friend or John Cleese as the evil walrus, it’s unlikely that many audience members will exclaim, “Say, isn’t that Jeremy Renner as Swifty?” Worse, most of the voice actors seem to be just reading their scripts, providing voices to the characters but not characterizations, or even emphasis or inflection. Only the reliable Renner as Swifty seems to be attempting anything like actual voice acting.

Directed by Aaron Woodley from a screenplay by Bob Barlen, Cal Brunker, and the director, “Arctic Dogs” is receiving withering reviews from the critics. Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of only 20%, and even the usually forgiving exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award the picture a score B-minus. Playing in 2,844 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Arctic Dogs” earned only $3.1 million in ticket sales over its opening weekend, scoring the ninth place spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten.

“Arctic Dogs” is rated PG for some mild action and rude humor.

“Harriet” Distributed by Focus Features, 125 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Nov. 1:

It’s still not an easy fact for many Americans to fathom, even more than a century later.

To place the subject into perspective, look at it this way: While many of us are descended from ancestors who traveled to America from other countries to escape persecution and pursue a life of freedom, many of us are descended from ancestors who were kidnapped from their homes in other countries and transported to America against their will to be bought and sold as property of others. The kidnapped people were forced to provide manual labor in homes and on farms . . . and were beaten, tortured, raped, maimed or even executed if they tried to escape to freedom.

Still, many of these enslaved people risked their lives by attempting to flee. And among the most honored and revered of those courageous souls is Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery in Dorechester, Maryland, Tubman escaped enslavement and made her way, alone and on foot, over 100 miles to freedom in Pennsylvania. Over the years, Tubman risked her life again and again by making some 13 trips back into Maryland and the southern United States to rescue dozens of others.

One of the strengths of “Harriet,” the new biographical film from Focus Features, is that the picture tells Tubman’s story in a straightforward, unembellished way, without sermonizing or pity, condescension or scolding. Written by director Kasi Lemmons in collaboration with Gregory Allen Howard, who’s also the screenwriter behind the fact-based inspirational drama “Remember the Titans” in 2000, “Harriet” draws its enormous emotional power by depicting the harsh and often difficult historical facts in a serio-documentary style.

“Harriet” draws a direct parallel between the events which preceded the American Civil War and the events described in the Bible’s Book of Exodus. Even Tubman’s pseudonym, used by the plantation owners who hunt her during her later excursions into the South to transport slaves to freedom, is “Moses.” And on the strength of the emotional conviction in her quiet and understated performance in the title role, actress Cynthia Erivo accomplishes much the same effect actor Charlton Heston contributed to his role as the Biblical Moses in 1956’s “The Ten Commandments.”

To augment the spiritual metaphor, the movie has the audacity — or the courage — to depict, plainly and without a hint of skepticism, Harriet’s “visions.” Sustaining a skull injury at age 13 as the result of a slavemaster’s fury, Tubman throughout her life experienced periods of dizziness and near unconsciousness, during which she believed God was speaking directly to her and guiding her movements. Asked in the film by an incredulous Philadelphia abolitionist if she actually made the 100-mile journey to freedom alone, Harriet shrugs, “Me and the Lord.” And later, when asked to describe her visions, Harriet remarks simply that they “make God’s voice more clear.”

“Harriet” is receiving encouraging reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 72% from Rotten Tomatoes and 66% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes notes that the picture “serves as a sincere tribute to a pivotal figure in American history . . . albeit one undermined by its frustratingly formulaic approach.” Exit audiences polled by CinemaTrack award “Harriet” the rare exit grade of A-plus.

Released to 2,059 theaters across the United States and Canada, distributor Focus Features expected “Harriet” to earn as much as $9 million during its opening weekend. After earning $3.9 on its opening day alone, the picture ended the weekend with $12 million in earnings, scoring the third place spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten, behind the new “Terminator: Dark Fate” and the returning DC Comics-inspired “Joker,” now in its fourth week of release.

Director Kasi Lemmons is also the writer and director of the acclaimed “Eve’s Bayou” from 1997, the 2007 biographical film “Talk to Me,” and 2013’s “Black Nativity.” A former actress, Lemmons appeared as Clarice Starling’s FBI roommate Ardelia Mapp in the Academy Award-winning “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991. Actor Vondie Curtis-Hall, who plays Reverend Samuel Green in “Harriet,” is Lemmons' husband. 

Also featuring performances by Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monae, “Harriet” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and scenes of violence.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 128 Minutes, Rated R, Released Nov. 1:

You might actually sprain your brain if you think too hard about “Terminator: Dark Fate,” the new science fiction action picture from Paramount Pictures, 20th Century-Fox, and the Chinese Tencent Pictures company.  It’s not that the movie’s terribly deep or thought-provoking — it’s that the picture violates both the space/time continuum and many of the rules the Terminator movie franchise has established for itself over the previous five pictures . . . and then swears with a straight face that it didn’t.

The central conceit in 1984’s “The Terminator” and its 1991 sequel “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” was time travel: A man from the year 2029 was sent back in time to 1984 to prevent the extermination of the human race at the hands of Artificial Intelligence-enabled computers. Specifically, the man was to act as a bodyguard for one Sarah Connor, a girl who would eventually become the mother of the savior of humanity. Hunting the hapless Sarah is an indestructible android disguised as a human, sent back in time by the virtual bad guys.  

Hold that thought for a minute.

Set in 2020, in “Terminator: Dark Fate” we learn that the heroes of the first two pictures were successful in preventing that original 1984 vision of the future . . . but that another version happened instead which produced more or less the same results. So another bodyguard has been sent back from the future to protect another future savior from another indestructible android assassin, to save the human race from another group of AI-enabled supercomputers.  

To make things even more complicated, Sarah Connor is still out there in 2020, armed and dangerous, hunting down stray Terminators who were sent back to hunt other future saviors of humanity but never got the news that their mission had been aborted by their future programmers. Killing stray Terminators is sort of a hobby for Sarah, a substitute for Pilates or mahjong in her old age since the events depicted in the new picture’s 1998 prologue . . . events which effectively erase the events of the previous five pictures in the series.

In other words, we know within the first five minutes of “Terminator: Dark Fate” that the previous five pictures in the Terminator series were more or less a waste of our time and money, and that this new picture is likely to be the first in an all-new series of Terminator pictures. And while this is no big surprise in today’s profit-driven filmmaking market, the knowledge that the filmmakers are being so blatant about it casts a mercenary pall over the entire $196 million picture.

Directed by “Deadpool” filmmaker Tim Miller from a story and screenplay compiled by a team of no less than five writers including comic book writer, novelist, and DC Comics-inspired movie veteran David Goyer, “Terminator: Dark Fate” is considered a direct sequel to 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Accordingly, the filmmakers describe 2003’s “Terminator 3,” 2009’s “Terminator Salvation,” and 2005’s “Terminator Genisys” as having occurred “in alternate timelines.” 

The picture also marks the return to the Terminator series of a few familiar faces, including filmmaker James Cameron, the filmmaker behind the first two pictures in the franchise. Cameron acts as a co-producer and co-writer of the new picture, his first actual creative participation in the Terminator series since 1991. Over the years, Cameron has become the most successful filmmaker in history, responsible for “Titanic” in 1997 and “Avatar” in 2009, among other pictures.

Actress Linda Hamilton also returning to the Terminator series as the older but wiser Sarah Connor. Hamilton delivers her lines with a Debbie Downer portent which becomes tiresome after a while, but fits right in with the foreboding and overbearingly self-important spirit of the picture. The actress’ grave delivery is matched by 22-year-old Natalia Reyes as the new savior of humanity (“Fine,” intones Hamilton’s Sarah, “let somebody else be Mother Mary for a while”) and the outrageously buff Mackenzie Davis as Grace, Reyes’ futuristic protector.

Only Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to get into the proper popcorn-munching spirit of the picture. Making his entrance about an hour into the movie as a former Terminator who’s seen the error of his ways and assimilated into Texas society as a drapery salesman named Carl, Schwarzenegger adds some awkward but welcome humor to his scenes. Asked how he explains his garage arsenal of military grade automatic weapons, missile-launchers, rockets, and bazookas to his family and neighbors, he simply shrugs, “This is Texas.” Still, there’s only so much the Austrian-accented Ah-nuld can do with clunky lines like, “The plan has a high probability of success.”

Released to a whopping 4,086 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Terminator: Dark Fate” is receiving encouraging reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 69% from Rotten Tomatoes and 54% from Metacritic. Originally expected by its distributors to earn up to $47 million during its opening weekend, expectations were lowered after a disappointing opening day to $27 million. The picture ended the period with $29 million, easily scoring the first place spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” is rated R for violence throughout, language, and brief nudity.

“Western Stars” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 83 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Oct. 25:

With Bruce Springsteen, the art’s always been rooted in the words more than the music.  

From his beginnings as a recording artist, groomed by his label Columbia Records as a successor to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan, Springsteen with his well-known fondness for clever wordplay has been a poet first and a musician second. The driving rock ‘n roll beat, soaring guitar solos, and the wailing saxophone of his late longtime bandmate Clarence Clemons have always acted as a sort of safety net for the high-wife acrobatics of Springsteen’s lyrical wordplay.  

From his second album forward, with lyrics like “there hasn’t been a tally since Sally left the alley” and “play some pool, skip some school, act real cool,” the music has always worked hard to keep up with the poetry. And with the free form word-paintings “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” and “Incident on 57th Street,” Springsteen painted portraits of life vivid enough for the listener to see a switchblade flashing in the light of a streetlamp, or smell the peanuts and diesel fumes in the faded neon lights of a traveling carnival.  

Only with Springsteen’s third album did the lyrics and music achieve enough parity to form the foundation for his blow-the-roof-off-the-stadium live shows. His marathon four-hour-plus concert appearances attracted audiences because of his between-songs banter and storytelling as much as for the E Street Band’s virtuoso musicianship, and The Bruce Springsteen Show became the hottest ticket in the United States, and then the world.

At age 70, Bruce Springsteen has become less The Boss than The Pappy. With his 2016 memoir “Born to Run” and his year-long residency at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater, Springsteen seems to be settling comfortably into a new role as an elder statesman of American music, a curator of Americana. Removed from the white-hot rock ‘n roll rage of “Seeds” and “American Skin,” old and new fans alike during live Springsteen shows sometimes get a feeling of settling at the foot of grandpa’s rocker to listen to tales of hard-won homespun wisdom, earned through a lifetime on the road as a working rock ‘n roll musician.

Very much a companion piece to his memoir “Born to Run” and “Springsteen on Broadway,” Bruce Springsteen’s movie “Western Stars” celebrates Springsteen the storyteller. Part documentary and part concert film, much of “Western Stars” was filmed before a small audience of close friends in the hayloft of the barn of Springsteen’s New Jersey ranch — a space converted by the musician into a combination social hall and saloon, where he hosts family weddings and gatherings, recording sessions, and the occasional barn dance. 

Directed by frequent music video collaborator Thom Zimny and Springsteen himself, “Western Stars” showcases Springsteen’s music, performed by the singer with a 30-piece orchestra providing lush instrumentation to emphasize the soulfulness of his latest album of songs, a sort of country rock pastiche.  Between performances of the baker’s dozen songs on the album, Springsteen narrates family home movie footage, intertwined with spectacular shots of the singer on magnificent American locations near California’s Joshua Tree National Park.  

Springsteen in “Western Stars” shares the sort of personal tales and homespun wisdom his fans have come to love, delivered in a signature voice alternately husky and hoarse, sort of like Spencer Tracy’s narration in 1962’s “How the West Was Won” — an American voice, the sound of an American Icon. During the performance segments, wife Patti Scialfa, a gifted singer and musician in her own right, shares the microphone with her husband on some songs and is absent from others. And it’s a testament to the homespun charm of “Western Stars” that while Mrs. Springsteen’s offscreen, the viewer gets the feeling that maybe she’s in the kitchen, checking the roast in the oven.

The music in “Western Stars” is some of the finest of Bruce Springsteen’s career — introspective music, whiskey sippin’ music, songs that might fit in on the Grand Ole Opry stage. “The Wayfarer,” “Stones,” and the title song are minor classics, stories of love lost and love found, alternately introspective and contemplative. The romantic ballad “There Goes My Miracle” is a particular delight, a melody lovely enough to be mistaken for a long-lost Rodgers and Hart showtune. Performed by Springsteen in a voice more lyrically expressive than you’ve ever heard from him, the song’s two-octave range coupled with the singer’s natural vibrato causes The Boss to sound eerily similar to legendary Broadway leading man John Raitt. Who’d have guessed?

Bruce Springsteen has inhabited many different personas over the years since his 1973 debut — itchy street rocker, leather-clad biker, Jersey shore beach bum, athletic rock hero, guitar-wielding champion of the oppressed and marginalized, proud dad and family man. Since 9/11, he’s become a symbol of America’s best qualities — honesty, hard work, integrity, and dependability. Long before “Make America Great Again” became a rallying cry for the far right, Springsteen stood above politics, quietly showing us that our greatness was never really gone. And through it all, there was always the promise of better days ahead.

The music on “Western Stars” stands by itself without introduction or explanation — Bruce Springsteen’s songs always have, right from the very beginning. But it’s always a genuine pleasure to enjoy a visit with The Boss.

“Western Stars” is rated PG for some thematic elements, liquor use, and smoking.

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