Dumbo

Dumbo poster

Where’s the magic? Where’s the delight? Where’s the fun? It’s not here.

Tim Burton’s live action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film Dumbo is lacking in the qualities that have made Disney films special. Burton’s Dumbo is just okay, not special.

Yes, the CGI version of the baby elephant with big ears looks real. When he flies, the depiction looks good. The technical aspects of Dumbo are solid.

Yes, the cast is star-studded. Max Medici (Danny Devito) is the owner of a struggling circus that plays small towns a century ago. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is the circus performer returning from WWI minus a left arm. V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) is the Barnum-like showman who brings Medici’s circus to New York. Colette (Eva Green) is Vandevere’s girlfriend and star acrobat.

Yes, there are cute kids. Nico Parker is a charmer as Millie Farrier, Holt’s daughter. Son Joe Farrier is played by Finley Hobbins. (Mrs. Farrier is deceased—yet another Disney dead mom!)

Yes, there is a message about turning a perceived handicap into an advantage: Dumbo’s deformity gives him the ability to fly.

Yes, there is spectacle. The Medici circus, with its variegated cast of performers (animal and human), works hard to entertain in its tent and on the midway. When Dumbo’s extraordinary talent is revealed, the circus goes big time to Dreamland, a giant amusement area like Coney Island.

Yes, all the pieces are there. And yet, something’s missing. As one who grew up with Disney films and TV shows, I recall being emotionally invested in so many of their stories and characters. It didn’t happen for me with this newest version of Dumbo.

Interestingly, in the film’s production notes there is a quote from director Tim Burton in which he admits that as a kid he did not like the circus. To his credit, Burton’s Dumbo is not as gratuitously weird as his films sometimes are.

With live action versions of Aladdin (May 24) and The Lion King (July 19) in the pipeline, one can only wonder if they will recapture the Disney magic that the animated versions from the early 90s had.

 

 

 

 

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Spotlight

 

Not every Catholic priest in Boston is a child molester. But in a true story from just a few years ago, an unnerving number of Boston area priests are exposed as molesters. The soon-to-be-awarded film Spotlight tells the compelling story of newspaper staffers and their effort in the early 2000s to get the story about what had been kept secret.

The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team works together to uncover just how many priests are involved and how the diocese covered up the scandal. The team consists of real-life reporters played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James.

Their managers at the paper are newly arrived editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and publisher Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). The connection between Spotlight and the 70s classic All The President’s Men is more than just major papers breaking huge stories: the editor of the Post in the 70s was Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards in the film.

Baron is eager for the Spotlight team to cover the scandal. It is his guidance that directs them to focus on the church’s complicity more than on the individual clergymen. As it becomes clearer that the church made settlements with victims and families and then reassigned many of the priests to new posts, the effort intensifies.

The team pursues a multitude of leads. Attorneys who know what’s going on (Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup) are relunctant to share details. The church’s leader Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) is outwardly friendly, but mum about settlements to victims and their families.

But the dogged journalists press on, confident that many of those with information will give it up. And they do. James’ character (real-life reporter Matt Carroll) enters large volumes of information into an computer file to establish a database of errant priests.

Some of the toughest scenes to watch are the recollections of those who were abused by priests, sharing their stories with the Spotlight crew. As we know from media reports locally and nationally over the past couple of decades, the scourge of priest abuse has been widespread.

Tom McCarthy, who directed and co-wrote (with Josh Singer) the script, manages to squeeze a complex, multi-layered story into just over two hours runtime. The story is detailed but clearly told. (Just as editing is a huge part of crafting a newspaper issue, so is editing vital to screenwriting and filmmaking.)

Look for a Best Picture nod for Spotlight and acting honors for several cast members. Ruffalo, Keaton and McAdams are getting significant awards buzz.

We sometimes forget that media outlets are primarily advertising delivery systems. Content is king, yes, but sponsors pay the bills. That’s why media sometimes pull their punches, especially when there’s negative news about a major advertiser.

Spotlight shows the Boston Globe and its leaders courageously taking on a major local institution, the Catholic Diocese of Boston. The church may not spend much money on ads but its influence was and still is mighty. That the paper chose to act in the interest of its area’s citizens is admirable and, in these days of constantly monitored earnings statements and stock prices, almost unbelievable.

Minions

Minions is more cute than funny. Despite its quick-moving story and a handful of memorable human characters, Minions is tailor-made for the younger crowd. Little kids should love it. For adult filmgoers, it’s a definite maybe.

In the two Despicable Me movies, the minions were amusing support players; here the capsule-shaped yellow creatures are the film’s centerpiece. When a TV sitcom sidekick gets a show of his/her own, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Are the minions strong enough to carry the movie? I say yes, but it’s borderline.

The film opens with the evolution of their species. The minions seek their life’s mission: to serve the worst villains they can find. The list includes a T-Rex, Dracula, Napoleon, etc. When minion life becomes boring, three minions (Kevin, Stewart and Bob) set out to find new villains to serve.

They come ashore in 1968 New York City where a billboard touts one of America’s real life political villains. But the yellow trio hitches a ride to Villain Con in Orlando with Walter and Madge Nelson (Michael Keaton and Allison Janney) and their kids. At the con, they meet up with Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), touted as the first female super villain, and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm).

When she drafts them to do her bidding, they join her in England where she conspires to take the crown from Elizabeth. After a series of wacky activities, the Queen gets her crown back and (with an assist from the other minions who’ve joined them in London) the trio emerge as heroes.

Because of its 60s setting, the soundtrack includes classic tunes from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Turtles, The Kinks and The Who. An appropriate salute to the minions’ pigmentation is Donovan’s Mellow Yellow. (The minions hum the opening Universal fanfare… which would’ve seemed clever if the Barden Bellas hadn’t just done it better in Pitch Perfect 2.)

Minions ranks a notch below the two Despicable Me movies, but should draw huge audiences because of the love for the predecessors. AND because of heavy marketing—(get your Minions Happy Meal!)—aimed at that youthful target. Sometimes an animated film has just as much adult appeal as kid appeal, if not more. That’s not the case with Minions.

Birdman

Birdman delivers. It is an amazing thing to see. Michael Keaton’s terrific performance in the title role is likely to earn him an Oscar nomination. Director Alejandro Inarritu (who co-wrote the script) should receive awards, as well.

Riggan Thompson (Keaton) is a well-known movie star who played a character called Birdman in a series of films before he stepped away from the franchise. Now he is starring in and directing a Broadway play whose script he adapted. The movie covers the few days spanning the time from final rehearsals to opening night. Yes, it’s a comedy, but one with a dark, often subtle, wit.

Is Riggan crazy? Is his inner voice—the voice of Birdman— just the conscience we all have or is it the voice a mentally ill person hears? Does he really (within the movie) have super powers or is that just his imagination? Can he possibly be as insecure as he often seems? And there are more questions that are not clearly answered, questions that can’t be referenced here without being spoilers.

Other key players include Mike (Edward Norton) who is a last minute replacement in the play’s cast. He’s a pro and Riggan knows it, but Mike’s on-stage confidence and Broadway pedigree rub Riggan the wrong way. Naomi Watts is Lesley, another on-stage cast member. She and Mike have a past together. Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is the 4th member of the play’s cast. His response when she tells him she’s pregnant reveals much about their relationship.

Samamtha (Emma Stone) is Riggan’s daughter, just out of rehab. She confirms to her dad that, yes, he is no longer relevant. She chides him for not being on Twitter and Facebook, equating social media presence to existence.

Jake (Zach Galifianakis), the show’s producer, is a different role for Galifianakis. He plays a less wacky, more normal guy, though one with some funny lines.

Because of its technical style, long takes and unorthodox camera angles, Birdman is film that will be dissected and analyzed by film classes for decades. The Steadicam used extensively in filming Birdman earns back every cent producers paid for it.

If you see Birdman with a friend, you’ll have plenty of things to talk about after the show, such as: Who, besides Keaton, had the most award-worthy performance? (I’d say Norton.) Were things Mike said to Riggan based on jealousy of his notoriety or were they sage wisdom? (Both, I think.) Was Birdman‘s “continuous take” clever or tedious? (For me, mostly clever.)

More discussion topics: How about that soundtrack, provided mostly by a single drummer? (It magnified the tension, but I detest drum solos at concerts, so I got tired of it quickly.) Is the alternative title Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance really necessary? (No.) Was Riggan’s putdown of critics valid? (To a degree, yes.) What did you think of that ending? (No spoilers, so no input from me on this question.) We can talk after you see Birdman. And you must see it!

Robocop

The 1987 Robocop is not quite a classic, but it’s a movie I love for many reasons: its story, its gritty violence, its depiction of corporate greed and, especially, its sense of humor. The new Robocop (set in 2028) provides appropriate updates to certain elements of the original but doesn’t have the same impact as the 27-years-ago version.

Despite Robocop 2014’s high level of violence, it gets a PG-13. The ’87 Robocop was an R, thanks to language and a bit of skin (along with the violence).

Three things I really liked about the new Robocop: (1) Gary Oldman’s performance as Norton, a robotics engineer who wavers between his commitment to making a marketable product and his commitment to doing what’s right. (2) Samuel L. Jackson’s right wing TV show, which provides bookends for the movie. (3) The challenge Robocop faces versus a variety of robots, a glorious sequence resembling a rapid-fire first-person-shooter video game.

Samuel L. Jackson as a Fox News Channel personality? Pat Novak (Jackson) is a conservative TV host who is an advocate for security robots made by Omnicorp. He accuses Americans of having “robophobia.” In the movie’s opening, we see a live TV shot from Teheran where these machines protect US forces and a lady TV reporter. (Interesting prediction: that we’ll have ground forces in Iran in 14 years.)

As in the original, Robocop is Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), an injured Detroit cop who is made into a robotic, computer-aided crime fighter. Kinnaman lacks the gravitas that Peter Weller brought to the first Robocop. He’s 34 years old, but has a baby face.

The bad guy in this film (other than the dirty cops who are abetting a weapons dealer) is Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), head of Omnicorp. He’s in a political battle, opposing a federal law against robotic crime-fighters. Robocop is seen as the compromise because he is a human (with feelings), who also has the skills of a robot. Keaton brings an evil sneer to this character, a darker role for him. Other notable cast members include Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Abie Cornish and Jay Baruchel.

The 2014 Robocop is not groundbreaking. But if you’re looking for a decent action film that predicts a high tech future, showcases plenty of violent gunplay and has a sense of humor, Robocop satisfies.