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Schultz reviews: ‘Brahms: The Boy II’ & ‘The Call of the Wild’

Schultz reviews: ‘Brahms: The Boy II’ & ‘The Call of the Wild’

Carl Schultz

 

“Brahms: The Boy II” Distributed by STX Entertainment, 86 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Feb. 21:

 

The only thing Hollywood studios like better than a horror movie is a horror movie sequel.  

 

Since most horror pictures are made on the cheap, a lot of times they can earn back their entire budget during the first week of release. The trick seems to be to get the movie into theaters just long enough to make a killing at the box office — pardon the pun — and then get it back out again before word gets around about how lousy it is. And a sequel to a popular horror picture comes with a built-in audience waiting for it.

 

With over $64 million in box office earnings on an expenditure of $10 million, “The Boy” was sequel-bait to STX. The picture itself was little more than a variation of the old Devil Doll theme, with an inanimate toy doll employing mind-control tactics to command people to perform its evil bidding ... although as usual the filmmakers never quite got around to telling us why.

 

The new horror picture “Brahms: The Boy II” is pretty much what the title suggests. The movie’s described by distributor STX Entertainment as a lateral stand-alone followup rather than a sequel to their popular 2016 picture “The Boy,” but likely you’ll never notice the difference between the distinctions.

 

Written by Stacey Menear and directed by William Brent Bell, the same team behind the original 2016 picture, “Brahms:  The Boy II” concerns a modern family living in London — a workaholic dad, his American wife, and their sensitive and intelligent young son. One evening, the mom and son are traumatized by a brutal home-invasion while dad’s at work. Upon recovery from her physical wounds, mom exhibits symptoms of PTSD, while the boy experiences selective mutism, the social anxiety disorder which results in a psychological inability to speak.

 

Feeling a sense of guilt over his absence during the burglary, dad moves the family out of London and into a rented cottage in the country. And while exploring the neighborhood shortly after moving in, the family discovers a creepy old mansion near their temporary home, which although abandoned is still patrolled by a strange and menacing groundskeeper. Nearby, the boy discovers a porcelain doll half-buried in the woods. He unearths the toy, dusts it off, takes it home, and names it “Brahms.”

 

Before you know it, the boy through the written notes he uses to communicate with his parents begins to claim that Brahms is using a telepathic means of not only speaking with him, but also issuing commands. Pretty soon, son and doll are dressing alike, and mom is finding horrific drawings in the boy’s notepad ... and starts locking up the cutlery. It isn’t long before dad learns that the creepy old mansion next door was the location of the ghastly events depicted in the 2016 picture ... which were reportedly caused by a porcelain doll named Brahms. You can guess the rest.

 

Clocking in at a compact 86 minutes but seeming much longer, “Brahms: The Boy II” adds a little shallow pop psychology to the customary jump scares, cutaway shots, and brief, fleeting glimpses of otherworldly elements, but otherwise is just an exercise in cinematic manipulation. A shot of Mary and her Little Lamb would be scary too, if integrated into a movie with competent editing and sharp violin stabs on the music soundtrack, a staple of cheap horror pictures since “Psycho” in 1960.

 

Starring Katie Holmes, making a rare appearance outside society events and tabloid gossip columns as the mom, “Brahms: The Boy II” might scratch your itch to see a horror movie, but it won’t satisfy your appetite. By using a stopwatch and a synopsis of every bad horror movie you’ve ever seen, you might be able to follow along with the picture without even looking at the screen. And that’s not a good thing.

 

Released to 2,151 theaters across the United States and Canada, distributor STX Entertainment was hoping “Brahms: The Boy II” would earn back its $10 million budget during its opening weekend. The picture is gathering less-than-glowing reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of just 8% from Rotten Tomatoes and a weighted average of 30% from Metacritic. Even the usually lenient exit audiences polled by CinemaScore are assigning only an average grade of C-minus to the picture.

 

“Brahms: The Boy II” is rated PG-13 for terror, brief strong language, disturbing images, and thematic elements. Likely the picture was edited carefully to avoid an R, which would’ve shut out the movie’s target audience of teenagers on dates.

 

“The Call of the Wild” Distributed by 20th Century Pictures, 100 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Feb. 21:

 

The 14th motion picture version of Jack London’s classic adventure tale “The Call of the Wild” is one of the best. First adapted to the screen in 1908 by legendary film pioneer D.W. Griffith as a one-reel silent picture, the story has been remade and reimagined for the movies approximately once every generation, and sometimes more, since the book’s original publication in 1903.

 

Told from an animal’s perspective, simultaneously vivid and lyrical, poetic and haunting, London’s classic novella describes the story of Buck, a 140-pound mixture of St. Bernard and Scotch Collie, the pampered and privileged pet of a suburban California county judge. Buck is stolen from his home, transported to the remote Yukon region of Canada, and sold into a kind of canine slavery as a sled dog during the Gold Rush of 1899.  

 

The tenderfoot dog eventually toughens to become a valued and coveted companion, but gradually regresses into the more instinctive primal incarnation of his prehistoric ancestors through his interactions with a series of owners both cruel and kind. Still, the dog never quite loses his inherent tendencies of loyalty and affection, particularly when he falls under the ownership and care of the rugged John Thornton, a tough but morally decent northern prospector.

 

For about the first half of the new film version of the novel, “The Call of the Wild” remains surprisingly — and admirably — accurate to both the spirit and letter London’s novella, with the more brutal interludes either toned down or removed entirely. As the playful and sweet-spirited Buck is broken, beaten, and tamed by his kidnappers, the cruelty of the first beating is thankfully restrained, cleverly depicted through shadows on the wall of a cabin. And even then, the worst of the brutality is represented by impact scorings on the billy club used for the beatings.

 

Unfortunately, the second half of the movie is more in the spirit of the bland but successful recent canine-based pictures such as “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Journey.” It’s at the halfway point that “Call of the Wild” becomes a fairly standard shaggy dog story ... or rather a shaggy Harrison story, with the film’s star Harrison Ford arriving in the narrative full-time, in an unusually unkempt and hirsute incarnation as John Thornton. Sporting collar-length hair and a full beard, the aging matinee idol Ford somewhat resembles Robert Redford’s title frontiersman in 1972’s “Jeremiah Johnson.”

 

From the point of Ford’s arrival forward “The Call of the Wild” transitions from Buck’s story into a Harrison Ford picture, with the Thornton character now complete with an affecting back-story involving the tragic death of his beloved adolescent son, a retreat into alcoholism, and a withdrawal from civilization. And despite Ford’s best efforts to pass himself off as a Great White North incarnation of Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford, and from his arrival forward it doesn’t take much imagination to start thinking of the picture as a Han and Chewie kind of thing.

 

Directed by former Disney animator Chris Sanders from a screenplay adapted from London’s novella by Michael Green, who also wrote the scripts for 2017’s “Logan,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” “The Call of the Wild” is a triumph of computer-generated animation, giving the picture a sort of Once Upon a Time storybook quality, an effort augmented by star Ford’s narration, read from London’s own matchless prose.  

 

The film’s central character, Buck, is a fairly realistic recreation but 100% computer-generated, about as authentic as the baby elephant in Tim Burton’s recent live-action remake of Disney’s classic cartoon “Dumbo,” and at least twice as heart-tugging. As a result of the obvious computer-generated imagery, at no point during the narrative is the viewer fully persuaded that Buck is a flesh-and-blood character — probably a good thing, considering the brutal reality of some of the film’s content.  

 

Still, nobody does this sort of thing as well as the folks at Walt Disney Studios — or rather the Disney-owned 20th Century Pictures. An abridged and truncated version of Jack London’s vivid prose is better than no Jack London at all, and an accurate representation of the final pages of London’s story would likely have landed the picture squarely into R-rated territory and been politically incorrect besides. This new version is miles ahead of, say, the 1935 movie version of the tale, which effectively removed Buck’s story entirely and ultimately became more noteworthy for the scandalous (for the time) off-screen location antics of stars Clark Gable and Loretta Young.

 

“The Call of the Wild” is receiving approving notices from the critics, including an approval rating of 65% from Rotten Tomatoes and a weighted average of 47% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes notes that “this heartwarming ‘Call of the Wild’ remains a classic story, affectionately retold.” Produced on a budget estimated to have been north of $125 million and released to some 3,700 theaters across the United States and Canada (presumably including the Yukon), the film was expected to earn up to $20 million during its opening weekend.

 

According to literary legend, Jack London spent a year in Canada’s Yukon conducting research into the background of the novella, and used the book’s profits to purchase the vessel on which he wrote his classic 1904 novel “The Sea Wolf.”  As a historic note, the new film version of “The Call of the Wild” is the first motion picture using the “20th Century Pictures” logo (minus the “Fox”) since … well, since ”The Call of the Wild” in 1935.

 

Also featuring spirited performances from Bradley Whitford as Buck’s original California owner, Omar Sy and Cara Gee as a dedicated team of Royal Mail couriers, Michael Horse as a frontier judge, and Dan Stevens as a vengeful novice prospector with gold fever, “The Call of the Wild” is rated PG for violence, peril, thematic elements, and mild language.

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