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.

American Assassin

 

Certainly not fun in the way the “Kingsman” films are, never the less this is a satisfying spy thriller with enough of a story to keep us engaged and a couple of characters that give us some rooting interest but not a lot of sympathy. The action is reminiscent of  the style of the Joh Wick movies but without the irony and gore fetish of those movies.The film is so serious that modern audiences might not recognize it, because it is not a parody or a send up or pastiche, it is a drama. It is told in a straightforward manner and I don’t think these is a single moment in the film where you will catch anyone winking at the audience.

American Assassin is not for everyone. I have read two or three of the Vince Flynn novels that feature the lead character Mitch Rapp. He is not James Bond. He is a dedicated killer, committed to wiping out threats to America. There is no nuance to his attitude and people looking for the grey zones between who is right and who is wrong should seek their entertainment elsewhere. Mitch is just going to kill the bad guys, and he is not stylish about it but he is efficient. Young Dylan O’Brien does not look like the Mitch Rapp I had in my head, but this is an origin story and if the series gets a chance to continue I’m sure he will mature into the role more. Seven years ago, Taylor Kitch would have been the choice for Mitch in this film, instead of the bad guy “Ghost”. So it makes sense to cast him in the role of a former agent that has gone rogue.

The plot is not particularly unique except in the way it can visualize a world where Iranian operatives might cooperate with the CIA. The ultimate target of the attack is also somewhat interesting although it seems a by inconsistent with the character. The opening scene with an attack on tourists at a beach resort is brutal and may seem a little too real in the way it is depicted. The terrorists are indifferent machines, going through the process of killing as many people as they can. The personal psychological trauma inflicted on our nascent “hero” is understandably sufficient motivation to shed himself of the humanity, a characteristic that distinguishes Rapp from other characters in this genre. Much of this film takes place in the light of day and I enjoyed getting a tour of Istanbul that was maybe a little brief. The more extended tour of Rome was a nice compliment to the nighttime tour we got in “Spectre” a couple of years ago. Both of these cities are highly photogenic and they are different enough for this type of film to tale advantage of.

The real draw for people who make an effort to see this will be Michael Keaton. I really appreciate having him as an onscreen presence in films so much more often these days. Those of us who remember his debut in “Night Shift” will be amazed at the spectrum of characters he has ended up playing. As the hard as nails CIA trainer Stan Hurley, he manages to be believable, even when he is being tortured. His no nonsense approach to personnel will probably not endear him much to real CIA recruiters but as a film character he is exactly right.

Most of the film is SOP when it comes to these sorts of stories. There is one really great fight scene in a speedboat that makes a creative contribution to how these stories are told There is a solid use of real physics in the fight that is the closest we come to a cinematic shot in the film. As the high speed boat rockets across the water and it encounters a large wave, the combatants are thrown into the air and off of their attacks momentarily. It’s not something I’ve seen before and that’s why I appreciated it so much. Frankly, I’m not that complex when it comes to this kind of film. I root for the Americans, I enjoy the revenge plot and I was satisfied with the action beats. This is not a film that you would call artistic or great, but it is one that will leave people who want to have this kind of experience, sated.

Spider-Man Homecoming

Everybody knows that Sony Pictures botched their re-boot of the Spider-man movies with the last two outings. “The Amazing Spider-man” in 2012 was a satisfactory start to a new series but seemed to be covering a lot of familiar territory. The sequel, “The Amazing Spider-man 2” was a complete mess which screwed up the storyline, wiped out an important character prematurely, and basically repeated every mistake made in the third film in the original Spider-Man trilogy. When Marvel and Sony worked out a deal to get Spider-Man into the MCU, they took a huge step in fixing the things that were wrong with the films. The arrival on the scene of Spider-Man in the terrific “Captain America: Civil War” showed the promise of a young new actor in the part. The story can be about a teenager.

I think that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were well cast but played the role much more maturely than the character was originally supposed to be. Since Peter/Spidey show up in Civil War without having another version of the origin story, we get to skip that as well and get right to the fun stuff. Here, young Tom Holland (21) can pass for a fifteen year old. He has a baby face and a voice that certainly will not intimidate anyone, so it works. What also works is his desire to be an Avenger. Even though he has incredible powers and a history with the Avenger team, he still feels like a wannabee and that motivates him to act in a manner contrary to the advise of his “mentor” Tony Stark. Holland is completely believable as a nearly ADHD genius who wants to rush home from school and do some good. His desire to be one of the big guys reminds you of a puppy, anxious to please it’s owner but so clumsy in doing so that it upturns the furniture and cocks up the works. The first trilogy and the reboot, all focus on romance, but this film focuses on Spider-Man himself and his struggle to find a place in an era of super-heroes. There is a romance with a surprising turn, but it is not the main point of Peter Parker’s life in this film.

The side characters in this story all add to the freshness of the film. They are not merely cutouts to be plugged in for narrative purpose but real flesh and blood  people who matter to the story. Jacob Batalon plays Peter’s friend Ned, another nerdy kid who accidentally discovers that his friend is the neighborhood hero that he has seen on YouTube. Ned is nearly irrepressible in his enthusiasm for sharing in Peter’s secret. He wants to share it but even more than that, he wants to be a part of it. He offers advice, asks annoying questions and genereally plays Jiminy Cricket to Holland’s Pinocchio. Since they both attend a school for gifted students, Ned is certainly as bright as Peter, but he and Peter are still young and they make social mistakes and act on impulse sometimes. Marisa Tomei, plays the youngest version of Aunt May yet. She is just in her late forties or early fifties and even the committed Tony Stark has sexist things to say about her. Tomei has been an excellent actress in films for almost three decades. Anyone who thinks her Academy award for “My Cousin Vinnie” was a fluke, did not see that movie. Her May is not to far a stretch from Mona Lisa Vito. She is more streetwise, flirty and sharp than any of the actresses who have played this character before. I won’t spoil the quote but I will say she has the final line of the story and it will bring a big laugh. Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan has appeared in three of the “Iron Man” films but has barely registered because there was not much to his part [even though he directed the first two]. Happy is a happy addition to the Spider-Man story. As the contact for Peter Parker to the Avengers, he is the perfect balance between exasperated and impatient. He gets a laugh on screen every time from simple facial expressions.

As with most action stories, whether they are set in a comic book universe, the spy world, or everyday dramas, the villain is a tipping point for the direction of the story.  Since Iron Man is the template they are following somewhat with this approach, let’s use those films as examples. The Iron Monger in the original film had a great actor and a well developed part, the film is stronger as a result. Whiplash is a cipher in Iron Man 2 and The Mandarin is a red herring in 3, both films are less successful from a narrative position. “Spider-Man Homecoming” does not have those weaknesses, instead it has the strength of the first Iron Man, a great actor in a well developed part.  Michael Keaton plays a third winged character, after two turns as Batman and a self referential role as Birdman in the recent Academy Award winner. Adrian Toomes is a character that we can feel empathy for early on. He is pushed in the direction of crime by circumstances that are outlined at the start of the film, but his actions are not driven by revenge but rather the need for financial security for himself and his crew. While it is not clear how he expects to keep a low key presence, given the nature of his new enterprise,  the so called “Vulture” is not really malevolent. His threats to Spider-Man are dire, but in the context in which they are issued they are really negotiation points. There is no spite or lust for revenge, this is a character who is taking advantage of the skills he has and the opportunities that are presented to him. The main caper at the climax of the film is something he enters into very reluctantly. He is not a monster, and Keaton is a great choice to play this working class villain who aspires for so much but also chooses to fly under the radar. Frankly there is a twist in the film that I did not see coming, but looking back it might make sense to those who have closely followed the Spider-Man Franchise. That twist gives Keaton a chance to strut some of his best stuff. He has those great facial ticks and a range in his voice that can go from jocular to threatening in an instant. I thought he added immeasurably to the success of this film.

The screenplay balances the intimate story of Peter Parker and his family and friends, with the two parallel plotlines of the Vulture and The Avengers. Peter is an effective hero occasionally but he also makes the kinds of brash mistakes that any headstrong kid might make. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, knows all to well the trouble he can be getting himself into by aiding in Peter’s development as a hero, but he lacks the requisite supervisory capacity to guide Parker correctly. Happy and Tony together are the indifferent parents that need to put their foot down but also need to listen empathetically. Stark is too narcissistic to realize this and happy is too busy. There is great humor throughout the story and it comes naturally in the incidents that crop up and the characters that have been developed. There are the usual story patches that allow Spider-Man to be around when it is necessary, but they do not show too much and with all stories in a comic book universe, they need to be forgiven a little.

I have heard talk of a potential backlash on comic based films. There is a danger of burnout in the audience. That will certainly be true if every film in the genre has to invent or resurrect an alien threat, a maniacal genius bent on revenge, or a scientific accident that creates some kind of chaos. When you have a film like this or the recent “Wonder Woman” where the settings are fresh and the characters compelling, you don’t have to have burnout. The creators of the MCU have found compelling stories about half the time. The hope for the immediate future is that “Thor Raganok” will be closer to “Ant-Man”, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and this film rather than Iron Man 2 and 3 or “The Age of Ultron”. WW holds out the hope that DC is on the brink of making the same discovery. What entertains us is not empty spectacle but stories that are involving with characters we can like or identify with. If you get some well deserved humor in there without shoehorning it in, all the better. “Spider-Man Homecoming” was not a film that I was particularly desperate to see or hopeful for. It turns out to be a wonderful re-invigoration of not just that character, but of our whole desire for comic book films. There are little details in the movie that add to the experience and I don’t want to spoil them for you, but from the moment the Marvel Logo streams on to the screen, if you listen, you will know that the film makers want you to be entertained, and they find some good ways to do that.

Jackie Brown “Walt Sent Me” Podcast

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https://podomatic.com/embed/html5/episode/8427804?autoplay=false                                         I am a guest on this great podcast with Kristen Lopez and Todd Liebenow. We talk Disney News, discuss the Cartoon Short “Who Killed Cock Robin?” and worship at the alter of Pam Grier. Listen in, I think you will really enjoy it.