Dumbo (2019)

If you have not visited before, let me tell you something about myself that repeat visitors have already heard, I am a sentimentalist. I tear up at dog stories, mt throat constricts when I see the American Flag waving in the background of a patriotic scene, and a well placed song can send me on a nostalgia voyage that I might take days to return from. With all of that front loaded, “Dumbo” should have been catnip to me and just the kind of soft sweet film to enjoy on a family night out. That is what makes it so depressing to report that the film is a rather joyless and empty exercise in spite of all the emotional manipulation that it attempts. Tim Burton has lost something here, and it is not his unique visual style .

The film looks great. I was so in during the opening moments of Casey Jr. chugging down the tracks toward the home of the Medici Brothers Circus. The hint of the original theme, and the near face on the front of the locomotive, made me think of riding in the tiny circus cages pulled by the miniature train at Disneyland. That moment was fleeting however. When we arrive at the circus, we are rushed through an introduction of characters that tells us their names but nothing about who they are. Milly is a scientist supposedly trapped in a circus child’s body. How do we know this?, because someone says it. We don’t learn it organically from her actions, the character is being described to us. She fares better than her brother however, poor Joe is not given any character at all, not even a expository line about his personality. In a blink and you’ll miss it moment, we discover that they have been cared for by the circus magician and his wife after the death of their mother while their father was away in WWI. It is his return to the circus that starts the movie, and that feels like the wrong start. I can see the parallel being developed by the story structure of an absent parent and the need for connection. Colin Farrell as Holt Farrier, needs to re-establish with his kids, but we are seeing all of this out of any previous context and I mostly did not care because I had to emotional connection to anyone yet.

We should feel emotionally invested in Dumbo immediately. Baby animals are almost always cute and a baby elephant just screams “adorable”. The CGI creature that is the star of this movie is suitably appealing but somehow still fails to capture our hearts the way he should. When baby Dumbo is being sepearted from his mother, it should be a moment of heartwrenching drama, instead it is a moment of mild sadness that passes much too quickly. I’m not sure what Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger missed, but there is definitely a shortage of giving a darn here. I think it may be that the story of the kids and their father steps on the emphasis on Dumbo and his mother. It also does so without giving us enough emotional reward for the human story. We are supposed to care about the tragedy that has befallen this family, but there was no flashback to happier times or a current display of the family bonds. Once again, we are just told that this is what is happening, not really shown it.

The biggest missteps in my opinion come from trying to establish the villainous characters in the story.  Holt is supposed to take over the responsibility of the elephants in the circus, but a roustabout who doesn’t really like the elephants and has been in charge, resents having his authority undermined. That character is drawn so broadly, that you can tell he is evil from the moment he appears on screen. That his malicious treatment of the elephants and Holt, results in an on screen death in a kids movie, tales this away from being light hearted family fare. This has a dark edge to it, that might work in other Burton films but is a sour center to this piece of eye candy. It gets worse when the main villain, portrayed by Michael Keaton, comes on like a young John Hammond, all set to show the world something impossible and then he morphs into the standard shortsighted capitalist that is the easy parody for struggling screenwriters. Almost nothing Keaton’s character does after bringing everyone from the circus to his amusement center makes sense. Each choice he makes is counter intuitive to the goals he has and the supposed status he has attained.  The climax of the film comes as a result of a temper tantrum that takes place for no reason what so ever.

Give Burton and Kruger a little credit for playing a bit subversively with the Keaton character V.A. Vandevere. When we see the amusement park he has created, it is a send up of Disney himself and the legendary park that he created. The “Trip to the Moon” ride in the background is lifted from one of the early attractions in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, as is the “Hall of Science” which has a futuristic display that anyone who remembers the “Carousel of Progress” will chuckle at. The ruthless businessman behind the warm hearted innovator is a caricature of Disney’s legendary duality. This idea would have worked so much better if there was a redemption arc to the story rather than a comeuppance. Stupidity in a character who has succeeded beyond imagination may be Burton’s attempt to get a little revenge in the complicated relationship he has had with the house of the mouse since the start of his career.

Danny DeVito is the ringmaster owner of the Medici brothers circus. He has played a similar role in other Tim Burton films so the casting works although his performance is a little outsized at times and the actions he is required to take to make the story move forward do not make much sense. Eva Green is an aerial artist who initially looks like a villain but moves into the role of ally effectively and love interest much less so. Her relationship with the children, their father and Dumbo himself is ambiguous when it should be more obvious.

So if a guy like me, who cries a little at the trailer for a chezy movie about a dog, can’t get worked up about a film like this, someone has missed a step. There are only two moments where I started to feel a connection to the characters and the story. First was the moment when the circus folk are singing the song that came from the original film, and the mermaid is plucking it out on her ukulele. That was a piece of fan service that was necessary and worked because of the previous connection. The second moment is when Dumbo is watching the bubble show that goes on right before his performance and his head nods with the dancing pink elephants that are faintly suggested by the bubbles. Had there been a little bit more of that magic, this opinion would be different. Unfortunately, we miss the comic antagonists of the cartoon and don’t care about the protagonists or antagonists in this re-imaging of the story.

Us

Back in 1998, M.Night Shyamalan was dubbed the second coming of either Hitchcock or Spielberg.  With his well crafted thriller “The Sixth Sense” he restored our faith in what a good horror movie could be and he provided a twist ending that still impresses twenty years and a million spoilers later. He made two more solid films before he tripped with “The Village” and then fell flat on his face with “Lady in the Water”. But it took “The Happening” for audiences to laugh him off the screen and write him off for the next decade. Director Jordan Peele was favorably compared to Shyamalan after his clever and very successful “Get Out” showed up two years ago. It also restored our faith in grown up horror stories and had similar kinds of plot twist moments. Peele however has skipped the next phase of the Shyamalan career, a couple of less successful but still credible films, and he has instead taken a dump that makes “The Happening” look like a modern classic.

I cannot express how disappointed I was at this film as I was watching it unfold. This is a miscalculation by someone who is clearly talented but did not seem to have anything to say with his next film project. “Get Out” had something to show us about race relations and class in a post Obama world. It was also creepy as hell for the first hour and incredibly intense in the second. “Us” does not have the benefit of a whole hour of slow burn, it shoots it’s wad in the first ten minutes and then never reaches another moment as effectively again. Oh, and the set up that had the brief flash of excitement and fright to it, was not that great in the opening anyway, which made the movie all the less interesting as it went along. If there is some cultural, political or dramatic concept that this movie is trying to make or subvert, it fails on every point.

A horror movie can make you laugh at a moment as a release from some tension or thrill that it provides. The catharsis such a moment brings is just what an audience wants. If a horror movie is making you laugh at it’s premise and the stupidity of the events in the story, you have a bad horror film. That is what you get with this. If you have seen the trailer, you know that a doppelganger family appears to start a home invasion story with our protagonist family. The moment one of those characters starts to speak I had to suppress a laugh, but when another character starts uttering call back sounds, it not only is guffaw inducing, it is ludicrous.  If you are not being terrified by a horror film, why are you watching it? That’s the question I started to ask myself along the way. I also asked myself how much worse it could get, and the answer was…a lot.

The actors do their best, Lupita Nyong’o in the lead duo role is effective, but her doppelganger character is given some silly exposition to deliver and it is presented in a voice that instead of being frightening, makes you want to get her some Nyquil for her stuffy nose. Winston Duke fairs better but not by much. He fortunately spends less time in the doppelganger role and he also comes the closest to being a real person in the story. He is a goofball of a Dad, which is of course the preferred way to present an adult male in a family these days. He says the wrong thing to calm down his wife, he is a bit of a joke to his kids, and the whole powerboat subplot exits to create a single scene that allows him to have a moment of success by accident.

If you stretch your imagination enough, there might be some kind of social commentary about keeping up with appearances. The family friends that they connect with seem like cardboard cutout shallow people. Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker feel unpleasant from the moment that we meet them. Their twin daughters are stereotyped mean girls without actually doing anything mean. When the story shifts to them for a few minutes in the middle of the film, it has no tension to it and it only feels different in how quickly events play out and how well everything is lit because they have a back up power generator and the other family does not.

You want to know that you are getting into a bad film that takes itself too seriously, look for an opening scroll that tries to tell you that there is some real idea behind the hoopla. If you think that abandoned subways and tunnels are the lurking places of the bogey man, then maybe you can be convinced that this story is real, HA. Remember how Mark Wahlberg spent an hour running away from the wind in “The Happening”? And do you recall how you laughed out loud when you found out the monsters are the trees? Well that resolution is brilliant compared to the explanation we get here. I have not found rabbits so silly since bugs bunny, and the fear factor in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is eons ahead of this. There is of course a final twist that makes everything that came earlier seem even more preposterous.

In fairness I have to admit that I have not cared for two celebrated horror films of the last few years. “Hereditary” had a lot of visual spark to it but the storytelling fell apart for me. “Cabin in the Woods” is a joke that might work for twenty minutes but takes two hours to get to the punchline. Those movies had moments but “Us” did not work for me at all.  Let’s hope that Jordan Peele doesn’t screw up “The Twilight Zone” and that his next movie stays out of the water [like M. Night should have done.]

Wonder Park

Back at the start of the year, the Lambcast devoted an episode to making Box Office predictions for the year and we currently have a draft going. The truth is there is no point in voting for the draft because the winner is determined by the outcome of actual box office returns. Why you might ask, is this the subject at the start of a review of today’s animated film? It’s simple, “Wonder Park” was one of the films I chose for my draft. Here is my dilemma however, three of my films are opening within a week of each other, and two of them on the same day. “Captain Marvel” will earn me plenty of dollars in the Box Office derby, but my two films this week are likely to be a bust. “Marvel” is going to dominate again this weekend, and after seeing both of the other films I despair. Not because they are bad films, they are simply not going to draw a crowd. “Captive State” is too slow and intellectual to pull in many folks, and I think “Wonder Park” is so much more a kids film that only the little ones will bother to come out, and their parents may chose the Captain over the Park.

This animated film from Paramount is a serviceable film for a young audience. It has some inventive visuals and a little bit of character flair going for it, but that is all. The humor is mostly coy and not the kind of slap stick that kids will flock to. There is also nothing in the humor that speaks to adults, the parents who are going to be bringing their kids. This movie turns out to be so conventional that it will hardly be remembered after being seen.

At the heart of the story is a theme of imagination being encouraged. As much as the Comic Book movie dominating the theaters now is about female empowerment, so is this. June, the little girl who is the main character, has an imagination as big as all outdoors. Along with encouragement from her mother, she has visualized an elaborate them park with rides that seem exactly the kind of thing that kids would want to do. Forget the impractical, let’s just have some fun, and no one should fault them for that. June has integrated her toys into the park as well, making her stuffed animals pivotal elements of the park. She of course suffers from the same disease that all kids do at some point in these kinds of movies, a lack of faith in what she is doing.

The key turn in June’s enthusiasm comes in the form of an unnamed illness that threatens to take her mother away from her. As is usual in these movies, Dad is supportive but ineffectual. His attempts at reassurance and encouragement are met with a severe case of seriousness and anxiety by the child.  Somehow, the whole situation gets confronted by the discovery of the real park version of her imagined plans. The creeping decay of the park is much like the story in “The Never Ending Story” As a child despairs, the fantasy world they have created is threatened. You can almost certainly predict where things are going to go from there.

I did like the neighbor kid who is June’s friend Banky. You don’t see a lot of Indian-American characters in films aimed at kids and this is a rewarding change of pace. Also, there is not a local bully, hovering over the proceedings, all the emotion turmoil is self inflicted. The story of a child creating something real out of her imagination is the kind of thing we should encourage. I was reminded of “Caine’s Arcade” and the inventiveness of children when June and Banky launch their homemade roller coaster.  But other than the underdeveloped Chimpanzombies, there is not much to hold a kids attention. There is also a big sadness hanging over the movie.  Parents taking their kids to see this, may have to reassure them on their own health.

The movie is simply not inspiring or funny enough to succeed. It is not a bad film but rather a mediocre one that I unfortunately put my hopes in. I really wish I’d been able to draft “The Secret Life of Pets 2”.

Captive State

With a smattering of special effects and some old school style storytelling, “Captive State” manages to be a smart, compelling Science Fiction allegory that will make you remember the films of the 1970s without being old-fashioned. This film is more cerebral than is healthy for the box office, but if you are willing to think and fill in the story elements, you will come away impressed by the things that were accomplished here with solid acting, a cryptic script and an idea that has been around for a long time.

“captive State” barely touches on the manner in which our planet became an occupied state. That process is over by the time the credits have finished. This movie takes place well into the occupation and it uses some long standing ideas as the crux of the story. Aliens have come for our resources, but they need our cooperation to get them. Their solution has been to take over the political processes of the Earth and replace them with their own form of governing. They manage to convince the power elite that they will survive and everyone else is given pablum about how great everything is now that we are subjected to this domination. Although this is an alien invasion film, it is not really about the aliens. They appear in relatively few scenes and are largely a menacing off screen presence. It is the Vichy style police state that is the true enemy of humanity, and it is uncertain if an insurgency can be reignited after having been crushed once before.

There is an overwhelming sense of sadness about how compliant we humans have become. The folks who make up the deep “terror” cell of resistance, come from some of the obvious places but there are also a few surprises. Much of the story involves how they have to circumvent the surveillance that the whole population is subjected to. The police have become a tool for control and they have power that can only be described as dictatorial. John Goodman plays the head of the security police in a troublesome district. His methods are successful but he seems to be holding back on some potential problems as a way of protecting former family friends and securing a complete victory over the Chicago resistance cell at the same time. He has always been one of the best things in any movie he appears in and this is no exception. Although his name is the first lead on the promotional material, his story is secondary at times to that of Ashton Sanders as Gabriel Drummond, the younger brother of a famous resistance leader.

I mentioned that this was old fashioned story telling, well here is why I say that,,, very little is explained to us. We have to figure out what is going on as the story develops. Sometimes there are dead ends, and in other places there are moments that feel as if they are going to be important, but they are a red herring. Characters interact with one another and we don’t know their motivations or relationships, we only see their actions. That means we need to pay attention to those actions and my guess is a lot of people will not like that. There were a ton of crime films and science fiction films in the early 70s that did the same sort of thing. Nothing is spelled out in bold letters explaining what is happening or why it matters. Because the film is set in the decaying parts of Chicago after the invasion, it feel gritty like one of those movies as well. There are some action beats but most of the movie is suspense based with some mysteries deeply buried for us to wait to unravel.

This is a stand alone film that could easily be turned into a franchise but I doubt it will have the financial cache to get to that. Vera Farmiga, Kevin Dunn and Alan Ruck are seasoned veterans of movies who are small background players in this story. Kevin J. O’Conner,is another who is working in the background to make the scenario seem real. The movie though belongs to Sanders and Goodman and they have the ability to play it honestly. I thought the wrap up was sad as hell but also inspiring. I won’t say it is a total surprise but the way it plays out was not exactly what I chad come to expect. This is not really a popcorn movie despite the Sci Fi trappings. If you are interested in seeing how grown ups tell a story about the alien scenario, then this is the movie for you.

The Kid

Yesterday was a Chris Pratt film Festival for me. In the afternoon I saw the LEGO 2 Movie and in the evening I took in this slow paced western. I have to admit it is easier to like the animated film. It was light, with a lot of laughs and rapid paced action. This in turn moseys along at a very deliberate rate. It was not boring but it feels like it was much more methodical in telling the story than was necessary. That may be because the film is directed by a second time feature film director, actor Vincent D’Onofrio. The film is competently put together but it does have some flaws.

The script by Andrew Lanham is attempting to provide a backstory for the notorious Billy the Kid while also showing the last days of the Kid. Basically, a fourteen year old boy is trapped in a nightmare family scenario and it is strongly hinted at that he may be traveling the same path as William Bonney (Henry McCarty). It is a morality tale that tries to warn us off of the path of violence at the same time showing the violent nature of the men who are the heart of the story. “Pat Garret and Billy the Kid” follows the same material but was more focused on commenting on the dying western tropes. In Sam Peckinpah’s hands it was an elegy, D’Onofrio makes it more of a cautionary story.

Actor Dane DeHaan was not my favorite part of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets“. In fact, DeHaan was terrible in that film. I thought he was much more effective in this movie. The character of Billy the Kid is all twitchy coiled danger and DeHaan’s face is a perfect canvas for those characteristics. He speaks in a low key manner and expresses the kind of swagger and confidence that the notorious outlaw is known for. Ethan Hawke is Pat Garret, a grizzled mirror of Billy’s character. They took different paths after the Lincoln county war but hey both were hired killers at one point, and Garret seems to have developed a moral backbone wheras Billy is clearly flexible when it comes to right or wrong.

Our young hero, Rio, played by first time film actor Jake Schur, the son of two of the producers of this film. As a child/adolescent performer he is competent but does occasionally have some wooden moments. Rio is caught between the two legendary gunmen and has to figure out which path is the right one to follow. Neither seems to be a pleasant future for the young man. His Uncle is pursuing he and his sister who have fled from a family tragedy. Uncle Grant is a horrid human being without an ounce of redeeming qualities. That he is played by the usually charming Chris Pratt is the casting twist that this movie offers. He was believable as a louse who is ready to ruin the rest of the family for pride and avarice. The only part that was not convincing was his beard.

Pratt, Hawke and D’Onofrio all worked together on another western, the Denzel Washington remake of “The Magnificent 7“. Perhaps that is the genesis of their working together on this movie. Westerns are few and far between these days and the fact that this trio was involved in another western just three years , suggests that it is no accident that they are all on this project. There are several moments of violence in the film, so there is action but you would not really think of this as an action movie. The director chooses to show more than is necessary in some scenes, for instance there are long takes in the wagon that is used to transport the captured prisoners back to the jurisdictions where they are to be tried. The music for the film sometimes echos the music for the Kristofferson version of the story, but the final song is not written by Bob Dylan. The movie aims for something deep but because it is so ponderous at times it simply feels oppressive. In the end I would recommend it but only for fans of older style westerns.

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

Five years ago, “The LEGO Movie” came out of left field and surprised the hell out of me. I was not expecting much and I’d largely been ignorant of the toys so it was a complete shock to be pulled in and transfixed as I was. Of course the bigger shock later that year was the film not only did not win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, it was not even nominated. It was a top five film on my list that year, and the “Batman LEGO Movie ” from two years ago also made my top ten. These movies are really something.

The novelty may have worn off a little with this second part, but the story telling is as strong as the first film. Like the original movie, there is a theme to the events shown during the story. Unlike the first film however, there is not the same kind of surprise. We know that the LEGO Universe exists in the real world and the plotlines here are not very hard to dig at to get to the moral. The screenwriters don’t cover it up, hell you know it is coming before they do, but that doesn’t keep it from resonating with us at the end of the film.

The pop culture references in the movie give us plenty of chances to laugh at movies we have seen before. From Mad Max to Jurassic Park to Guardians of the Galaxy, they are all here to some degree. The opening section where the Lego world has been turned into a dystopian nightmare complete with creative vehicles that would fit on Fury Road, is the most elaborate parody in the story, but it is also fun that Chris Pratt gets to spoof himself as action hero in two other franchises as well. The visuals are really inventive as is the work of the directors, who keep everything flowing and funny simultaneously.

“Everything is Awesome” gets recycled in the film pretty effectively with a twist that might be a little too obvious, but there are two or three more musical spots that work even better. In particular, “Gotham City Guys” should have you laughing out loud. It’s a great mix of visual bits and the lyrics will crack you up. Also, “Not Evil” plays as an insincere denial of intent because of the context, but at the end of the movie it really fits in well with the theme that the story supports.  Will Farrell has one nearly static scene and then is only heard from again as an off camera voice. Instead Maya Rudolph steps in as the human adult that hovers over the events in the story. In my mind, that is an improvement.

The voice cast is back for the most part, but the big names have only a line or two. My favorite addition to the cast has to be John McClane himself, who shows up a couple of times including a scenario that was just perfect. The novelty has probably worn off of the franchise but the inventiveness and humor have not. Once again we have an adult parody film, posing as a kids movie and both sections of the audience will be satisfied.