DUMBO (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Disney’s commitment to live action remakes of so many of their animated classics; however, I’ll readily admit that teaming the always creative Tim Burton with every child’s favorite pachyderm piqued my interest. In case you don’t recall, Disney’s fourth animated feature film was released in 1941, and told the story of a baby elephant who could fly thanks to the flapping of his enormous ears. DUMBO was, at its core, a story of how being different can cause you to be an outcast, while also delivering the strength to overcome those who might treat you poorly or look to profit at your expense. It was a sweet and simple message delivered in a brief 64 minutes.

Taking up almost another hour, filmmaker Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger seize the original book by husband and wife writing team Harold Pearl and Helen Aberson and deliver a story that is anything but simple. Rather it’s complicated, convoluted and at times nonsensical. What does work is the visual splendor of watching a cute little elephant fly around a circus … first a tattered old-timey tent camp and later a futuristic amusement park.

It takes only about 30 seconds for us to recognize the silver screen stylings of Tim Burton. The ragged train cars in need of paint followed by the black smoke from Casey’s ‘smiley’ face engine, all point to the familiar visuals that harken back to Mr. Burton’s memorable films like FRANKENWEENIE, BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN RETURNS, CORPSE BRIDE, and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (to name a few).

It’s 1919 as the train clackety-clacks from Sarasota, Florida through small southern towns and up to Joplin, Missouri, where youngsters Milly (Nico Parker, lookalike daughter of Thandie Newton) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) give a hug to their father Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell). Holt has been away serving in WWI, and returns minus one arm and one wife … while he was at war, she lost her battle to illness, leaving the children in the care of the circus performers. Holt and his wife used to be featured performers in the Medici Brothers Circus run by Max Medici (Danny Devito), but times are tough and Holt is assigned to elephant-tending duty, where Max has recently purchased a pregnant Mrs. Jumbo elephant.

We don’t have to wait long for the baby to arrive, be called a “freak” by Max, learn to fly, be separated from his mother, and be targeted by a greedy amusement park owner named V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). Vandevere’s Dreamland has some familiar Disneyland elements, and serves it purpose for reminding us that traditional circuses are being replaced by high tech amusement parks – an environment more in line with today’s youth.

Where the film suffers is with its unnecessarily complicated story and underdeveloped characters. The usually reliable Mr. Keaton never really kicks in as the greedy and evil amusement park owner. Mr. Devito mostly yells his lines, and Mr. Farrell just seems categorically miscast. In what is the first film for both, young Ms. Parker shows flashes of talent, while Mr. Hobbins is given next to nothing to do. Eva Green does bring a welcome element as aerial artist Colette, but Alan Arkin’s role as a banker seems tacked on as a favor. Unfortunately we barely get to know the circus troupe, though Miss Atlantis (Sharon Rooney) strums her ukulele as she sings “Baby Mine”, the Oscar nominated song from the 1941 original, penned by Ned Washington and Frank Churchill. Adding to the Burton oddities, Michael Buffer makes an appearance as ring announcer … albeit a different ring than what he is most often associated with.

It likely won’t surprise you that Mr. Burton delivers a film much darker than the original, and at least he avoided the temptation of talking animals (the legendary Mel Blanc voiced Dumbo in the original). He does offer up a nod to the Pink Elephant sequence from the original, as well as the presence of mice … though wisely no crows this time around. Danny Elfman’s score is a perfect fit (as usual) and Oscar winning Set Designer Rick Heinrick (SLEEPY HOLLOW) works his magic, as does 4-time Oscar winning Costume Designer Colleen Atwood (ALICE IN WONDERLAND). The technical mastery of the film is finalized with the work of Cinematographer Ben Davis, whose work on such grand scale films as CAPTAIN MARVEL, DOCTOR STRANGE, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY allows him to make the best of the visuals, even while the story disappoints. There is a contemporary message delivered near the end regarding the captivity of animals, and despite the dark, overly complicated story, it’s still quite fun to watch Dumbo fly.

watch the trailer:


THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (2013)

March 18, 2013

Incredible Burt2 Greetings again from the darkness. As I sat in a theatre with approximately 80 others, it took me awhile to realize that the only audible laughs were coming from a couple of teenagers near the back. Until that point, I had just assumed that my grumpy old man syndrome had reared its head as I managed only a couple of chuckles.

The best comparison I have for this “comedy” from director Don Scardino (“30 Rock”) are the Will Ferrell sports-themed spoofs Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro. If you found those to be hilarious, then this one might provide you some laughs. Rather than picking on a sport, the movie focuses on the world of Las Vegas magic shows … big-budget stage productions (David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy) vs. streetwise illusionists (Criss Angel, David Blaine).

incredible burt4Childhood friends Albert and Anton evolve into Vegas superstars Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). The influence of Siegfried and Roy are obvious, right down to the costumes, hair and tans. After 10 years of the exact same act, Wonderstone is a pompous womanizer who cares little for the magic act, and Anton is the epitome of the invisible sideman. Casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) threatens to end the act if the duo doesn’t come up with something new to compete against the daring and popular street illusionist Steve Gray (Jim Carrey).

Gray’s “Brain-rape” act is supposed to compare to Criss Angel’s “Mind-freak”. Instead, Gray comes across more like cheap reality TV with masochistic tendencies. Of course, Burt and Anton collapse under the pressure and their friendship and act splatters to a painful end. Burt spirals out of control and ends up performing in a nursing home … a fortuitous turn that introduces him to his childhood idol (Alan Arkin).

incredible burt3 All you really need to know is that this comedy offers few laughs and only shows a pulse when Arkin and Carrey are on screen. Carell seems miscast as a pompous womanizer, so neither trait plays particularly well. Additionally, his bounce back is not believable since his rock bottom lasts about 30 seconds. Buscemi’s only real gag is his poke at celebrity humanitarian crusades. Otherwise, he and Olivia Wilde are bystanders with little to do, which is a shame. Really would have liked to see Carrey’s character with a better, more believable act so that the rivalry might have proved more interesting.

There is an underlying message of friendship and maintaining a passion, but this is no message movie. Heck, it’s barely even a comedy … unless you are one of those teenagers in the back row.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you long for a glimpse of the past from Jim Carrey or the scene-stealing wonder known as Alan Arkin

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking an insightful, funny comedy that takes advantage of a strong cast

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn1wR1V9dqs


STAND UP GUYS (2013)

February 3, 2013

stand up Greetings again from the darkness. Any movie lover with a sense of history has to get at least a little excited hearing about a star vehicle featuring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin. These three screen legends together prove the adage … worth the price of admission. And that’s a good thing, because there is little else that works for this movie.

The movie unfolds like a tribute to its three stars. That’s not a compliment. First time screenwriter Noah Haidle and character actor-turned director Fisher Stevens simply lack the chops to provide material worthy of the cast. So we get Pacino doing a Tony Montana growl and A Scent of the Woman dance; Walken doing his deadpan delivery and even a quick little soft shoe; and Arkin falls back into his half-crazed,moment-seizing act. What we don’t see is a story line that pushes any of them to a “wow” moment.

Pacino plays Val, and we meet him on the day of his release after 28 years in prison. He’s picked up by Doc, his old partner in crime, or crime partner if you prefer (played by Walken). There are a couple of not so secrets twists that try to keep it interesting, but the best part comes when they spring their old driver Hirsch (Arkin) from his nursing home and oxygen mask.

stand up4 The night on the town allows for plenty of female interactions: a brothel run by Lucy Punch, a nurse played by Julianna Marguiles, another brothel visit, revenge for a female victim played by Vanessa Ferlito, and multiple chats with a young diner waitress (Addison Timlin). Unfortunately, this big night also provides entirely too much consumed alcohol, numerous penis jokes, an extended (so to speak) Viagra sequence and attempts at laughter thanks to hyper-tension and insurance co-pays.

The old guys do their best to uphold the code from the good ol’ days – both as gangsters and actors. It’s just inexcusable that the script wasn’t improved to take advantage of this talent. Despite that, there was a certain sense of nostalgia that proved enjoyable watching these guys on screen together.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: for no other reason than the nostalgia of seeing Pacino, Walken and Arkin on screen together.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t share my sense of nostalgia and prefer movies that have a script worthy of the cast and your time

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NApJNjPTqZs


ARGO (2012)

October 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Based on a true story” is always a bit unsettling to see at the beginning of a movie. There are so many degrees to truth (especially when told by Hollywood), that we are never really sure how big the dosage might be. With this film, we get the inside track on the all-too-familiar Iranian hostage situation that began on November 4, 1979 and ended 444 days later with the release of 52 U.S. Embassy workers. The story within that story is the focus … six escaped as the Embassy was being seized.

The film begins with a Cliff’s Note history lesson on the fall of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and the assumption of power by Ayatollah Khomeini. The six who escaped were welcomed into the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played with grace by Victor Garber). Of course, this had to be kept secret or a terrible situation could have taken a turned much worse.

 This story really takes off when the CIA gets involved and drums up a scheme to extricate the six in hiding. Ben Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the real life CIA Agent, who uses the international fascination with movies to create a plan that involves making a fake Star Wars rip-off with the help of award winning make-up artist John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) and a long-time and old school Hollywood producer named Lester Spiegel. These two inject the film with humor and positive energy as played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Their levity is much appreciated given the unrelenting tension delivered by the rest of the story.

 This is extraordinary filmmaking thanks to the script from Chris Terrio, realistic camera work from Rodrigo Prieto and top-notch directing by Ben Affleck … yes, the same Ben Affleck who stars in the film. The team creates a period piece that has not just the look and feel of 1979-80, but some of the most gut-wrenching on screen tension since Three Days of the Condor or Munich. Many thrillers utilize car chases and gunfire. Here, we get personal tension thanks to politics and real life unknowns.

The film is perfectly cast and strong support work is provided by Bryan Cranston as the CIA chief, Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan, Bob Gunton as Cyrus Vance, as well as Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan. There are also brief appearances by Philip Baker Hall, Adrienne Barbeau and the great Michael Parks.

There are only two negatives to the film. First, Ben Affleck is miscast as Tony Mendez. The closing credits show what a perfect job they did with the rest of the cast, but to have a superhero looking American walking around Iran is certain to draw attention where it’s not wanted. Plus, as director, Affleck suffers from Warren Beatty syndrome. He LOVES seeing his face on screen. The number of Alleck close-ups has to push 20. It’s too much too often. Secondly, the final escape scene at the airport is just a bit too Hollywood and really stands out from the rest of the movie. There was no shortage of tension and the Armageddon style chase just looked cheesy.  However, I will admit, the audience with whom I watched, reacted quite emotionally when the race ended how it must.

 Those two things noted, this is Oscar material for sure. If you remember this era, the yellow ribbons and news clips featuring Cronkite, Koppel and Brokaw will bring back a frustrating time in U.S. history. If you are too young to remember, this acts as a reminder of just how powerful and quiet the CIA can be when it is doing its job properly.  Plus it’s nice to see the CIA doing something right, instead of being the bad guys from the Bourne movies.  Alexandre Desplat delivers a fine score, but the story provided plentiful suspense, so the musical guidance wasn’t as crucial.

Don’t miss the final credits as we hear Jimmy Carter narrate his memories as President, and we see real life photos of the six escapees.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wish to see one of the finest Political thrillers in years OR you need proof that the CIA can be the good guys

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the Iranian hostage ordeal is still too fresh

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w918Eh3fij0