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Review Round-Up: “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch”, “El Angel” “The Long Dumb Road”, and “Outlaw King”

Here’s another review round-up to share with you all! There’s four very different films to talk about today. Yes, this is going to be a thing going forward, so get used to it. On tap today are looks at a quartet of titles hitting theaters this weekend. One is the animated remake Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch. Another is the foreign crime tale El Angel. Another is the road trip comedy The Long Dumb Road. The other? It’s the medieval epic Outlaw King. A diverse group, but one full of interest. All four are worth watching, so we have triple the recommendations coming your way! So, without further delay, let us get into it and discuss all three movies. You can check them out in theaters (or in one case, on Netflix) this Friday…

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch

Remaking a classic children’s tale is almost assuredly a profitable business. Kids will probably dig whatever you put in front of them. Parents, however, are another case entirely. Those who loved the original cartoon, hearing Boris Karloff as the beloved miser Grinch, and so on, they could easily be put off by this, sensing a cash grab. Luckily, Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, while not reinventing the wheel, is a cute and fun new look at the story. Anyone who loves the output from Illumination Entertainment will likely dig this one too. It plays it safe, undeniably, but it’ll almost certainly put a smile on your face.

We all know the story of The Grinch by now, and this movie doesn’t change it up much. All of the Whos down in Whoville love Christmas a lot, but the Grinch (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch), who lives just north of Whoville, did not. A miser through and through, the Grinch hates dealing with the Whos. He’d much rather hang out in his cave with his faithful dog Max. When it gets close to Christmas though, he gets even angrier. This year, the Whos plan to do Christmas three times bigger than usual, so the Grinch sets out to steal Christmas from the lot of them. As he does this, Cindy Lou Who (voice of Cameron Seely) hopes to get Santa Claus to help out her overworked mother Donna Lou Who (voice of Rashida Jones). No points for guessing whether or not Cindy will soften the Grinch before all is said and done. This very much sticks to the spirit of the original plot. Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier co-direct a script by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow. The voice cast also includes Angela Lansbury, Kenan Thompson, Pharrell Williams, and more. Danny Elfman provides the score.

The charm of the story goes a long way towards making this flick work. The voice acting is fine, though unspectacular. Benedict Cumberbatch is solid, albeit doing an unnecessary American accent. Frankly, among the cast, Max the Dog steals the show. He’s utterly adorable. The whole thing is very family friendly, though luckily not the sort of animated fare that will make parents gouge their eyes out. A total reworking of the story would have been incredibly risky, and honestly, pointless. Keeping it simple like this was the right move. It’s not a necessary movie, but it is a cute one that provides a painless theatrical experience.

Something else worth noting is that Scott Mosier, the longtime producer for Kevin Smith (as well as his frequent SModcast podcasting partner), makes his directorial debut here. Fans of Smith will no doubt smile at seeing his name there in the credits. Mosier has long spoken of wanting to direct, so to see it end up in such a high profile project, that’s just good all around. It may not give a full sense of what his filmmaking style is or might end up being, but if this is the start of the next phase of his career, I’m all for it.

Dr. Seuess’ The Grinch plays it very safe, but it knows how to please. Your heart may not grow three sizes while watching it, but it could come close. This is the rare situation where a remake was wise to stick to the original skeleton, knowing what works. The formula is part of the success here. Don’t expect it to contend for a Best Animated Feature win at the Oscars, but a nomination? Who knows? Stranger things have happened at the Academy Awards. Mostly, this is just a nice little film for the whole family. Bring them all to the theater and they’ll be in for a good time…

El Angel

True crime tales have been all the rage lately, especially in podcast form. Cinematically, they can take many forms. The most popular is for a film to take a real life criminal or killer and to make a dramatization of their actions/lives. Mostly, this has been done with American serial killers, though one from abroad is getting his due this week. El Angel is the film in question, a fictionalized look at Carlos Robledo Puch, a teenaged killer in Argentina during the 1970’s. He’s not familiar to most of us, but this flick seeks clue us in. The result is stylish and well done, though perhaps not as illuminating as it hopes to be. Still, if you like accessible foreign fare, you could do a lot worse than this.

The movie is a crime drama, as you might expect, centered on Carlitos (Lorenzo Ferro), the stand in for the aforementioned Carlos Robledo Puch. The real Robledo Puch is the longest serving prisoner in the history of the country of Argentina, now nearly 50 years into his sentence. Once captured, he was dubbed by the press as “The Angel of Death” due to his boyish good looks. Before he was a convicted felon, however, he was just a kid. Here, we see Carlitos slowly go from a petty thief to a bigger criminal, before murder gets involved. Through it all, Carlitos looks like a kid, attractive and disengaged from the horrors he’s causing. The story is clearly sanitized, but there’s a ton of style here, not to mention good music. Luis Ortega directs as well as co-writes with Sergio Olguín and Rodolfo Palacios here. In addition to Ferro in the starring role, the cast includes the likes of Chino Darín, Daniel Fanego, Luis Gnecco, Peter Lanzani, Mercedes Morán, Cecilia Roth, Malena Villa, and more. Cinematography here is by Julián Apezteguia.

El Angel makes its bones by being a stylish look at a notorious criminal, even if it’s never interested in digging too deep. Ferro is a compelling leading lad, though Ortega’s filmmaking lets it rise above. Ortega has a bit of Martin Scorsese in him, using terrific music to underscore violence. Some of the soundtrack cues are borderline inspired. Paired with solid cinematography, it’s surprisingly enjoyable to watch. Is it in depth? Not at all, and that could frustrate some. With measured expectations though, this is solid stuff. Just don’t go in thinking it can measure up to the best of 2018’s foreign film slate.

Thinking about the Best Foreign Language Feature field at the Oscars, it is worth considering if El Angel might be a dark horse for a nomination. The win is almost assuredly going to Roma, with contenders like Capernaum and Cold War way ahead of others. Still, the Academy Awards could see fit to include something broader like this flick. Is it a likely nominee? No. Is it impossible to foresee it slipping in? Not at all. Consider it a bit of a long shot, but not an impossibility. If it ends up showing well during the precursor season, and that could happen, watch out.

Once again, El Angel isn’t in the same league as Cold War or Roma. Don’t compare it to that. As a fun crime tale though, there’s something enjoyable here. Keep that in mind and a viewing experience bodes well for you. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ortega gets poached by Hollywood in the next couple of years. He’s got the goods and could have a franchise under his belt before the decade is out. We’ll see if that ends up happening, but for now, just know that his new film is worth checking out. Especially if you dig true crime, this could be for you…

The Long Dumb Road

Jason Mantzoukas should be a comedy star by now. The talented comedian and podcaster has only sporadically been used properly on screen in films, but that changes this week. Co-writer/director Hannah Fidell gives him an outlet for his particular brand of humor, crafted around the age old trope of the road trip. The Long Dumb Road showcases him perfectly, while on its own just being a fun little comedy. This is one of the funniest movies of 2018. If you don’t laugh during it, you might need to go to a doctor for a check up. Something is clearly wrong with you. As an added bonus, it’s also surprisingly touching as well. That mix is a delight to find. I low-key loved The Long Dumb Road.

The film is a road trip comedy, which is pretty much suggested by the title, right? Thought so. Nathan (Tony Revolori) has just started a road trip when his car breaks down. In what seems like a bit of luck, the gas station he stops at for help sees mechanic Richard (Mantzoukas) quitting in a huff. For the cost of a ride, Richard fixes up Nathan’s care and off they go. They’re a mismatched pair, but end up in an easy rhythm, talking movies and relationships. The longer they spend time together though, the more their differences come out. One thing they do have in common is that this trip will ultimately mean quite a bit for them. Fidell directs and co-writes with Carson Mell. The supporting cast includes Ciara Bravo, Will Brittain, Lindsay Burdge, Taissa Farmiga, Grace Gummer, Ron Livingston, Ben Rosenfield, Casey Wilson, Cynthy Wu, and more. The underrated Andrew Droz Palermo handles the cinematography (he shot A Ghost Story, for example), while the talented composer Keegan DeWitt (coming off of some spectacular work earlier this year on Hearts Beat Loud) contributes yet another memorable score. It all adds up to a small scale gem of a picture.

This movie is often a riot. It is at its best when just spending time with our two main characters. Mantzoukas and Revolori are strong protagonists that bounce off of each other really well. Plot wise, things are solid, but the chemistry between the two of them just rocks. An early highlight involves the latter explaining to the former that there has been more than one installment in The Fast and the Furious franchise (he’s only seen Tokyo Drift and isn’t aware it’s connected to anything). Fidell and company don’t shy away from some darkness either. Mantzoukas’ Richard could be seen as unlikeable by some, if not many. The charm is buried down deep. It’s there though, and helps to elevate the flick, especially when you see the pathos there as well. Mantzoukas is terrific in the part though, easily putting forth his best and most complete work to date. As for Revolori, this is another fun turn that suggests a great career ahead of him. Together, the two make this a road trip well worth embarking on.

The Long Dumb Road is one of the year’s better comedies, with Mantzoukas an absolute showstopper. Fidell’s filmmaking shines a light on him, as well as utilizes some great behind the scenes crew, like the aforementioned DeWitt and Palermo. The mixture of everyone’s talents works brilliantly. With a brisk running time, a surprisingly poignant mix of drama to go along with the comedy, and a unique vibe, this works in a big way. Hitting theaters tomorrow, it’s something well worth searching out. If you see it playing anywhere near you, make it your business to see it! You’ll be glad that you did…

Outlaw King

Netflix scored one of their more epic titles when they decided to make this historical drama one of their high profile 2018 releases. Scoring the follow up to Hell or High Water for David Mackenzie was a real coup, especially considering how it also reunited the filmmaker with star Chris Pine. The streaming service ended up with a long and violent epic, one that had a middling debut on the fall film festival circuit. A re-edit later, the movie is coming out, with much better buzz. It’s a work that hints at greatness, but ultimately settles for simply being good. That’s fine, though perhaps a slight missed opportunity for something special.

The film is an historical drama, centered on a key part of the life of 14th Century Scottish noble Robert The Bruce (Pine), the Earl of Carrick. Known as the “Outlaw King” after taking the throne of Scotland despite objections from the ruling British forces, he went to war against England, greatly outnumbered. Supported by his wife Elizabeth Burgh (Florence Pugh) and assisted by James Douglas, Lord of Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Robert defies King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane). As you might expect, brutal battles and death ensue. When it comes time for war, the flick is gritty and compelling. When it’s in quieter moments, things are more hit or miss. Pine and Pugh have solid chemistry, though everyone else falls a little bit short. As mentioned above, Mackenzie directs, while also co-writing with the team of Mark Bomback, Bathsheba Doran, David Harrower, and James MacInnes. Supporting players here include Tony Curran, Billy Howle, Josie O’Brien, Rebecca Robin, and many more. Barry Ackroyd contributes some strong cinematography.

Mackenzie and Pine make a strong team (stronger last time out, but that’s just a case of phenomenal versus solid), unafraid of getting down and dirty with this material. That’s essential too, as the story doesn’t always capture your attention. The acting from Pine and Mackenzie’s filmmaking does though, helping to mask this flaw. Too many reviews have gotten caught up in the actor’s full frontal nudity, which is insane considering how it’s maybe five seconds of an over two hour movie, but that’s the internet in 2018 for you. There’s more to offer here than that, take it from me. With a tighter focus, this really could have been something tremendous. Perhaps it’s just a case of Hell or High Water just being so perfect the last time out?

Outlaw King was definitely made with Academy Award nominations in mind. It certainly wasn’t cheap, so that was likely a prime thought in justifying the price tag. At the same time, this likely won’t be the Netflix film to score major Oscar love this year. Still, a targeted campaign for Chris Pine in Best Actor wouldn’t be a terrible idea. Pine will almost assuredly fall short, but he’s super strong in the role. Mackenzie and Pine have a great working relationship. The more they work together, the better. This just won’t speak to voters like Hell or High Water clearly did a few years ago.

If we see Mackenzie and Pine continue to work together, that’s fine by me. Outlaw King is a compelling epic, violent and powerful. It could have been a major awards player with a tighter focus, but even so, this is still one of the better Netflix releases out there. The streaming service will be focused on Roma, obviously, and to a lesser extent The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (more on that one next week, even though this weekend it’s getting a limited theatrical run), but this shouldn’t be ignored. If you like grimy epics, this one should be right up your alley. Give it a look and see…

Be on the lookout for all three films this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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