Quick Movie Reviews (Togo, Mike Wallace Is Here, & The Death and Life of John F. Donovan)

Togo

Seemingly cornering the market on dog movies, Disney+ (who released a live-action adaptation of Lady and the Tramp back in November) has now delivered a dog tale that’s a little more substantial than your everyday dog movie, in Ericson Core’s Togo. The film follows the true story of lead sled dog Togo and his musher Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe). While Balto gets a lot of the credit when it comes to the 1925 serum run (a dog-sled relay which saw the delivery of a serum to Nome, Alaska after an illness breakout in the town which was saw many lives lost) because he finished the relay, it was Togo and Seppala who conquered the longest and arguably hardest part of the journey. However, Core’s movie is less interested in the particulars of the serum run than it is in the bond between Togo and Leonhard, which makes for a more emotionally resonant story, especially if you love dogs.

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Image via Disney

For those who aren’t dog-lovers, you may have trouble getting into the groove of Togo, especially when Togo is a puppy and being mischievous. But for anyone who’s grown up with or has a dog, those early puppy scenes can be a steady mix of being a blast and a bit repetitive. But the film also makes the wise move of casting Dafoe, and Togo is a testament not only to his professionalism, but to the decency he brings to his roles. His range practically insurmountable, his work in Togo comes as reminiscent to his recent Oscar-nominated turn in The Florida Project where he endlessly emanates humane kindness and dignity. Even when Seppala is trying to get rid of Togo by trying to get other families to adopt him, we never feel any hatred towards him. We see that he’s a guy whose business is breeding and sledding dogs, and he thinks Togo is a disruption to said business. But the movie shines its brightest when it shows how Seppala comes to not only respect Togo but love him, too. But through all the tribulations, there is adventure and, yes, there’s acts of heroism, but what makes Togo special is how it respects the unique bond between a dog and their person. A simple and timeless tale, Togo takes its charm, affection and great Willem Dafoe performance down known but satisfying avenues.

Grade: B-

Mike Wallace Is Here

In TV terms, the documentary Mike Wallace Is Here is an effective feature-length recap. Using only archival footage, director Avi Belkin distills more than five decades of the longtime 60 Minutes correspondent’s career on camera to a brisk ninety minute runtime. Documentary as autobiography, the movie shows a man who is always cultivating his appearance for an audience. The film opens with a clip in which Wallace spars with Bill O’Reilly, who criticizes networks like CBS for being too “stodgy,” but credits Wallace with being the driving force behind his career. The film argues that Wallace was instrumental in creating a tougher style of interviewing on television, and Wallace’s drive to be taken seriously becomes a recurring thread. We are repeatedly shown how the former commercial actor was regarded by some news veterans as a creature of show business rather than a serious journalist, and how he worked with great perseverance worked to dispel that idea.

Mike Wallace Is Here - Still 1
Image via Magnolia Pictures

A roll call of Wallace’s famous interviews could go on for a while, for paragraphs. But the highlight reel would assuredly include his 1957 discussion on The Mike Wallace Interview with gangster Mickey Cohen, who asserted that he had “killed no men that in the first place didn’t deserve killing.” In 1979, when Wallace asked the Ayatollah Khomeini about President Anwar Sadat of Egypt’s assessment of him as a “lunatic.” We hear about the potential chilling effect of a lawsuit against CBS that General Westmoreland, who commanded the U.S. forces in Vietnam, eventually dropped; and of Wallace’s interview with the Brown & Williamson whistle-blower Jeffery Wigand that the network stalled on airing. The interviews with more outside figures often serve to turn a mirror on Wallace. We see how he was able to move the “queen of mean” Leona Helmsley to tears by asking her about the death of a son, an experience that Wallace shared. Wallace’s interviews with the former Eisenhower assistant cabinet member Thomas Pike is used to bolster a strand on his own struggles with depression. Belkin allows most of the most clips to speak for themselves, at least visually; often now showing a title under the interviewees with most though being recognizable on sight. There are moments where it would probably work better if Belkin held on a moment or question a little longer. The score often has the effect of providing goosing where none is really needed. This isn’t a thriller; Wallace’s life offers enough drama, from himself and otherwise. A deeply compelling and unflinching portrait of a man’s dogged commitment to getting answers, Mike Wallace Is Here briskly tracks journalism’s evolution with the same commitment as its subject.

Grade: B

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

With it now being over a decade since his directorial debut I Killed My Mother, treasured Quebecois star Xavier Dolan has gone from breakout filmmaking talent to bonafide auteur, all before the age of thirty. His expressive dramas have increased in ambition and scale, from the sprawling trans saga Lawrence Anyways to the frantic mother-son intensity of Mommy. Even his often maligned It’s Only the End of the World brought a host of fantastic performances, from Vincent Cassel to Marion Cotillard, as Dolan continued to expand his scope. Now, after it took a thrashing at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmaker has delivered his first English-language project, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, a pretty large misfire that nevertheless demonstrates the sheer confidence in his storytelling that Dolan cultivated over a decade of movies. It’s the only possible explanation for his baffling ensemble piece, a campy (if occasionally inspired) burst of melodrama and ludicrous scenarios caving into each other in a spectacular mishmash of half-baked ideas.

For a filmmaker who’s never really made a dull movie, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan can be pretty grandiose in its choppy flatness. From its contrived structure to its forceful speechifying, this story about a years-long correspondence between Donovan (Kit Harington), a closeted actor, and Rupert (Jacob Tremblay), a troubled prepubescent boy, never acquires the emotional potency or coherence its themes demand. Which isn’t to say it’s a complete chore. André Turpin’s cinematography is stunning and probably the biggest highlight of the film, the Super 35mm as well brings a rather lush texture to the blacks and only further cements how sadly underappreciated Turpin is. But there’s also a strain that comes from a framing device in the film that has the adult Rupert (Ben Schnetzer), now an openly gay actor, laboring to persuade an eye-rolling journalist (Thandie Newton) that his book about the correspondence isn’t celebrity fluff. Rather, it’s an essay on truth, identity and the life-altering power of fame, at which point it feels as if we’re the ones Dolan is trying to convince.

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Image via Momentum Pictures

Narcissism is hardly a hindrance to an artist who has this much talent, but here Dolan seems off his game, his vision muddled and fragmented. Flashbacks detailing Donovan’s tortured decline and Rupert’s youthful tribulations are often overly melodramatic or woefully clichéd, like a rain-swept, slow-motion embrace between Rupert and his mother (Natalie Portman). And an excruciating “don’t ask, don’t tell” Donovan family dinner, featuring a scenery-chewing Susan Sarandon as John’s mother, is a clamorous debacle. But I’d be lying if I wasn’t curious about how this film’s post-production went, and though speculating about those matters is usually a fool’s game and arguably irrelevant (unless an alternate version turns up down the road). Still, it’s perhaps worth noting that Dolan’s original cut of this film reportedly ran nearly four hours, and to cut it down he cut out an entire subplot involving another journalist played by Jessica Chastain (who doesn’t appear at all in the film as released). There’s no way of knowing whether something essential got lost in the editing process, and no indication that any changes were imposed upon Dolan. Even his best films often veer into tonal hyperbole, so it may just be that he’s becoming less rather than more disciplined as he’s continued as a filmmaker. Struggling to connect the threads of past and present, youth and maturity, Dolan seems lost, his signature liveliness and sense of fun almost entirely muted. Instead, what lingers is a feeling of being lectured to, which isn’t exactly fun or that lively. While still bringing some solid performances and stellar work from cinematographer André Turpin, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan quickly becomes a spectacle of half-baked ideas that struggles to even be coherent.

Grade: C

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