Movie reviews: 'Dumbo' remake is pure Burton eye-candy
CTV film critic Richard Crouse reviews six movies: Tim Burton's remake of "Dumbo," "Hotel Mumbai," "Falls Around Her," "Through Black Spruce," "Firecrackers," and "BlueNote Records: Beyond the Notes."
DUMBO: 3 ½ STARS
Much of Tim Burton's live action remake of the Disney classic "Dumbo" concerns itself with putting on a great show. Set in a travelling circus whose ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is always looking for new ways to entertain people, the movie made me ask, "Is it possible to put on too much show?"
The Medici Brothers Circus has seen better days. Crowds are sparse and to keep the travelling circus afloat Max has sold off their show horses. When former circus star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns, injured from the war, his dream of starring in the big top are dashed. The only job available is tending to newly acquired elephant Jumbo. Medici purchased the pregnant pachyderm with the hope of having a baby elephant on display will sell tickets.
When the baby is born Max is convinced that Little Jumbo's gigantic, floppy ears will turn him into a laughing stock and actually turn audiences off. It's not until Farrier's kids, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), discover Little Jumbo — now dubbed Dumbo after a catastrophic big top debut — can flap his ears like wings and fly that Max sees a way to earn back his investment. Enter amusement park entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) with an offer that could save the circus or endanger everyone, most of all Dumbo.
"Dumbo" treads familiar ground for director Tim Burton. His best films tell stories of outsiders like Pee-Wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, lovable characters who weren't quite made for this world. He's drawn to outcasts but finds a narrative route for them to find a connection and a sense of community through their abilities and art. "Dumbo" breathes the same air, focussing on old-fashioned caricatures of circus folk like strongmen and mermaids, and, of course, the underdog elephant whose unique ability makes him a hero.
As such "Dumbo" feels like a Tim Burton movie rather than a remake of the 1941 film. His trademark whimsy is fully on display in the form of highly stylized design, fanciful casting and costuming and, "What's a Tim Burton movie without Danny DeVito?" It looks and feel like a Burton film for better and for worse.
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The better is his unique and heartfelt love of the unloved. He coddles his characters, imbuing Dumbo with soulful eyes to compliment his outsize ears. It's almost impossible to understand how anyone couldn't see the beauty in this unusual creature. Dumbo is a waif, an innocent whose inner beauty and strength is well beyond his years. Burton gets the character and keeps Dumbo mostly front and centre as the action swirls around him.
Here's the issue. There's too much action. The original film was a brief 63 minutes, a tight telling of the tale. Burton almost doubles that length, adding in anti-corporate subplots, action sequences and new characters. Near the film's end, however, the extra elements feel superfluous, unnecessary. Sometimes more is less. The heart of the story is found in Dumbo's character not the layers of CGI action that surround him.
Having said that, "Dumbo" is a treat for the peepers. Every detail from the costumes to Medici's grinning faced-train are pure Burton eye-candy. Fun performances from DeVito and Keaton keep things lively and the pro-animal message is heartfelt adding up to a movie that doesn't seem to trust its star, a flying elephant, to be enough of a draw.
Read another take: 'Dumbo' remake flies on its own charms
HOTEL MUMBAI: 3 ½ STARS
Don't let the word ‘hotel' in the title of Dev Patel‘s new film trick you into thinking it's another entry in his lighthearted "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" series. "Hotel Mumbai" is a harrowing retelling of the terrorist attacks on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in November 2008.
The film begins with 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic terrorist organisation based in Pakistan arriving in Mumbai. They split into small groups and soon reports of armed gunman rampaging through the city hit the news. They shoot up Mumbai's main rail terminal, a café and other hotspots, guided by an ideologue who has convinced these young jihadists that paradise awaits if they do the job by spreading terror.
Director Anthony Maras builds tension by cutting between the chaos in the streets and the measured, elegance, of Taj Mahal Palace Hotel where Arjun (Patel) and Chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) work among the 500 staffers who keep the place running like a fine tuned watch. It's the kind of place where the bathwater is always exactly 48° and, as the staff says, "the Guest is God."
Soon a small group of the terrorists invade the "otherworld luxury" of the Taj, indiscriminately slaughtering guests and staff alike. Inside the strong-willed chef and Arjun help the guests survive the siege, which lasted almost three days. With the closest Special Forces army 800 miles away in New Delhi the understaffed and unprepared local police must take action. "If we stay in here and wait," says one cop (Nagesh Bhonsle) looking at the carnage from the street, "there will be no one left."
Read the CTVNews.ca report from Nov. 27, 2008: Brazen gunmen terrorize Mumbai, at least 101 killed
There are many moving parts in "Hotel Mumbai." We follow the sprawling cast — including Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi as an upscale couple staying at the hotel — in various parts of the hotel as they fight for their lives. Despite some boiler-plate flourishes — cell phones that run out of juice at the worst possible time etc — Maras crafts an edge-of-your-seat thriller that puts you in the middle of the action.
With so many characters it can be hard to stay invested in them all but the horror of the situation becomes more visceral with every loud gunshot on the soundtrack.
"Hotel Mumbai" is a nicely executed thriller that looks beyond the terror to focus on the resilience of the human spirit in the face of surreal adversity.
FALLS AROUND HER: 3 ½ STARS
Tantoo Cardinal has been acting for forty years, building up a resume heavy with dozens of film and television credits like "Dances with Wolves," "Black Robe," "Legends of the Fall" and cult favourite "Smoke Signals." Her latest film, "Falls Around Her," is a career landmark, her first solo lead in a feature film. After watching the Northern Ontario-set drama you'll wonder why it took so long to put her front and centre.
Renowned Anishinaabe musician Mary Birchbark (Cardinal) is at a professional and personal crossroad. Exhausted and feeling career burn out she returns to the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation in northern Ontario to recharge her depleted batteries; to reconnect with friends, family and the land. Unfortunately, the solitary she hoped for is elusive. She hears noises outside her cabin and has the feeling someone or something from her past is lurking outside.
"Falls Around Her" is a tale of resilience. When we first meet Mary she's disconnected from the very things that ground her. As she slowly takes back her life, easing out of the road work and a new show in a new town every night, she opens herself to rediscovering what is really important. Family, friends, being happy. She is not a victim, she's in control, putting past trauma in the rearview mirror. Cardinal is a living breathing embodiment of Mary's renewal. Her performance dominates the film, a fiery mix of experience, hurt and joy. It's remarkable work, done with a minimum of dialogue, that presents one of the most complex and interesting characters in recent memory.
THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE: 3 STARS
In "Through Black Spruce," an adaptation of Joseph Boyden's Giller Prize-winning novel, "Yellowstone" actress Tanaya Beatty stars as Annie Bird, a Cree woman from James Bay who travels to Toronto in search of her twin sister Suzanne, a model who disappeared without a trace.
As Annie explores the dark underbelly of the city's fashion scene at home in Moosonee her Uncle Will (Mohawk actor Brandon Oakes) runs afoul of local drug dealers. They think Suzanne's boyfriend ripped them off and want to talk to her about where he is. When Will won't tell them he is beaten within an inch of his life.
"Through Black Spruce" comes with the weight of a backstory unrelated to what we see on the screen. The film, opening amid controversy over Boyden's Indigenous identity and directed by Don McKellar, who is not indigenous, comes at a flashpoint in our cultural history regarding First Nations filmmakers and artists and who should tell their stories.
"Through Black Spruce's" story touches on important issues. Annie's grief over her missing sister puts a human face on the plight of missing First Nations women whose stories are rarely told let alone solved. The second story, Uncle Will's struggle between the traditional and modern world, is played out in an interesting encounter with First Nations couple (Tantoo Cardinal and Edmund Metatawabin) in the deep woods.
As a narrative "Through Black Spruce" is split, connected in spirit, but separate. The story zig zags between the Toronto and Moosonee sections, laid out linearly. McKellar cuts back and forth, doling out the stories but the technique sometimes slows the film's momentum.
More interesting than the structure are the performances. In subtle ways Beatty and Oakes both find psychological and cultural context for their characters, a framework missing from the script. As Annie, Beatty is a haunting and haunted presence. Oakes brings Will's struggle with alcohol to vivid life.
FIRECRACKERS: 3 STARS
If "Firecrackers" was made decades ago it likely would have opened with the pulsating rhythm of The Animals's anthem to teenage boredom "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." Instead the edgy first film from Jasmin Mozaffari sets the scene with an opening blast of words from teenagers Lou (Michaela Kurimsy) and Chantal (Karena Evans) that would make your grandmother blush. It's not as melodic as Eric Burdon and Company but it sets the scene and the tone for what is to come.
Lou and Chantal live in a one stop light town, a place not big enough for their hopes and dreams. Crappy jobs have earned them enough cash to make a get-a-way to New York City but Chantal's possessive ex has different plans for her. When Lou and Chantal look to get revenge on the man who threw a monkey wrench into their plans, bad decisions set them on a downward path that places more distance between them and their dreams.
"Firecrackers" breathes the same air as "American Honey" and "The Florida Project." All are low budget female driven stories of poverty and aspiration that don't spare the viewer. The result is a film that moves at breakneck speed, both physically and emotionally. Mozaffari plants these two women at a crossroads in their lives, giving the viewer just enough information to understand that Lou and Chantal aren't necessarily the architects of their own futures. Stuck in a cycle of poverty and bad choices, they may not be off to happily ever after, whether they make it to New York or not.
"Firecrackers" is an exciting debut feature, brimming with visceral energy that never allows its characters to take the easy way out. It isn't easy watching but it is a powerful look at gender and class divisions and how they come into play in Lou and Chantal's escape plan
BLUE NOTE RECORDS: BEYOND THE NOTES: 4 STARS
Think Blue Note Records and several things come to mind. First the music. From the angular melodic twists of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane's free jazz to later, the smooth sounds of Norah Jones, Blue Note has been at the forefront jazz for decades.
Secondly, the album covers. Designed by graphic artist Reid Miles, they were striking pieces of pop art that mixed photography and graphics in an eye-catching way that was almost as influential to design as the music contained within was to the world of jazz.
A new documentary, "Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes" by Swiss film-maker Sophie Huber, does a deep dive into the history of the storied label.
Co-founded in 1939 by German immigrants Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Blue Note Records began life almost as a hobby for its and jazz fan founders. Early success with "hot" jazz and boogie woogie led to the more challenging harmonic sounds of bebop and hard bop during the label's heyday.
Telling the story are luminaries like early sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder and musicians Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter who praise Lion and Wolff for not only guiding careers but treating the musicians with respect, both musically and financially. Younger performers like Terrace Martin and A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad speak to the label's influence on hip hop and beyond.
Cramming 80 years of history into ninety minutes means big chunks of the label's history are ignored or given a short shrift. Well-known names like Monk and Coltrane, for instance, eat up a substantial amount of screen time while legendary saxophonist Ornette Coleman gets barely a mention. Still, despite the film's omissions, Huber has assembled a loving history of a cultural touchstone, ripe with wonderful music, archival footage and photography that vividly bring to life the label's influence on the way we listen to music.
Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.
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