Film Review: Dumbo (dir by Tim Burton)


Tim Burton’s remake of Dumbo actually wasn’t that bad.

I know!  I’m as shocked as anyone.  Usually, I’m against remakes on general principle and I’m certainly not a fan of the current trend of doing live-action versions of classic animated films.  (There’s a reason why I haven’t seen the new The Lion King.)  Dumbo is one of my favorites of the old Disney films, one that’s always brought tears to my mismatched eyes so I was naturally predisposed to be critical of the remake.  Add to that, I’m not particularly a huge fan of Tim Burton, a director who too often seems to be coasting on his reputation for being a visionary as opposed to actually being one.

And yet, I have to admit that I enjoyed this new version of Dumbo.  To call it a remake is actually a mistake.  It’s a reimagining, as I suppose any live action remake of an animated film about a flying elephant, a talking mouse, and a group of sarcastic crows would have to be.  So, the crows are gone, which is understandable as I doubt you could get away with a bird named “Jim Crow” today.  And sadly, Timothy the Mouse is gone.  He’s been replaced by several human characters, including Colin Farrell as a one-armed, former equestrian, Eva Green as a French trapeze artist, and Danny DeVito as the rough-around-the-edges but good-hearted ringmaster.  However, Dumbo’s still present and he’s still got the big ears.  He can still fly, as long as he’s holding a feather.

Dumbo’s only a CGI elephant but he’s still adorable.  Of course, I should be honest that I’ve always loved elephants.  I even rode one at Scarborough Fair once!  It was like a totally bumpy and somewhat uncomfortable ride but, at the same time, it was also totally cool because I was on top of an elephant!  The other thing I love about elephants is that elephants form real families.  They love each other.  They look out for each other.  They mourn their dead, which is one of many reasons why ivory poachers are some of the worst people in the world.  Elephants may not fly but there’s a sweetness to them that makes the story of Dumbo and his mother extra poignant, regardless of whether it’s animated, CGI, or live-action.  Anyway, the remake’s version of Dumbo is absolutely lovable, from the minute he reveals his ears to the triumphant moment when he soars through the circus tent.

As a director, Tim Burton has always struggled with pacing.  Watching his films, you always dread the inevitable moment when he gets distracted by a red herring or a superfluous storyline because you know that, once it happens, the entire film is going to go off the rails.  Dumbo starts out slowly and it seems like forever before the baby elephant actually shows up.  Fortunately, once Dumbo does show up, Burton’s direction becomes much more focused.  The story stops meandering and, for once, Burton actually manages to maintain some sense of narrative momentum.

Visually, the film’s a feast for the eyes.  Even though it’s a live-action film, the sets and the costumes are all flamboyantly and colorfully over-the-top, giving the film the feeling of being a child’s imagination come to life.  I mean, when you’re making a film about a flying elephant, there’s no point in trying to go for gritty realism.  While the film does mention some real-world tragedies — Farrell lost his arm in World War I and his wife to Spanish Flu — Burton plays up the fantasy elements of the story.  He’s helped by Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton who both give cartoonishly broad performances.  Fortunately, they’re both good enough actors that they can get away with it.

So, the live-action reimagining of Dumbo is not that bad.  It has its slow spots and it really can’t match the emotional power of the original animated version.  But, with all that taken into consideration, it’s still an undeniably entertaining two hours.

Music Video of the Day: Blister in the Sun by Violent Femmes (1997, directed by Evan Bernard)


When Blister in the Sun was first released in 1983, there were no music video.  In fact, there weren’t many listeners.  While the song was an immediate hit on college radio, it wasn’t until the late 80s and the 1990s, when all of those people who worked at the college stations got jobs programming “alternative” and “modern rock” stations, that Blister in the Sun really became a radio mainstay.

It wasn’t until John Cusack decided that he wanted to use the song in Grosse Pointe Blank that Blister in the Sun finally got a music video.  The video combines clips of John Cusack and Alan Arkin from the film with a totally new story involving the lead singer of Violent Femmes, Gordon Gano, attempting to assassinate Socks the Cat.  Socks was the White House pet during the Clinton years and it says something about the difference between 1997 and 2019 that this video could be made at all.  At the end of the video, Gano is arrested in a theater showing Grosse Pointe Blank, in much the same way that Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested in a theater that was showing War Is Hell.

As for the song’s lyrics, Gano has said that they were about drug abuse and not, as many listeners speculated, masturbation.  The famous “Big Hands” line was a reference to Gano’s insecurity about his small hands and his fear that his girlfriend would leave him for someone who had bigger hands.  As Gano once told the Village Voice, “I don’t think there’s a whole lot to understand with the lyrics.”

Enjoy!

A Movie A Day #113: Mother Night (1996, directed by Keith Gordon)


Four years after she played the mysterious (and dead) Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee starred as another mysterious (and possibly dead) woman in Mother Night.

Lee is cast as Helga Noth, the German wife of American expatriate Harold W. Campbell (Nick Nolte).  Harold is a playwright, living in Berlin and doing propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis.  Working with Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), a military intelligence officer, Campbell has developed a series of verbal tics that are meant to secretly deliver information to the Allied Forces.  It is never clear whether Harold’s information serves any real purpose just as it is left ambiguous as to whether Harold believes any of the anti-Semitic propaganda that he broadcasts over the airwaves.  Working as both a propagandist and a double agent, Harold serves both the Allies and the Axis.

In the final days of the war, Helga is reportedly killed on the Eastern Front and Harold is captured by the Americans.  Frank arranges for Harold to be quietly sent to New York City but tells him that the government will never admit that they used him as a double agent.

Harold spends the next fifteen years living an isolated life in New York.  His only friend is an elderly painter, Kraft (Alan Arkin), with whom he plays chess.  Eventually, Harold opens up to the painter and talks about his past.  Kraft, for his own shady reasons, reveals Harold’s identity to a group of neo-Nazis.  Though Harold initially wants nothing to do with them, this changes when they reveal that they have Helga.

Or do they?  Almost no one in Mother Night is who they claim or what they seem to be, especially not Harold.

Based on a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night suffers from the same uneven quality that seems to afflict most films based on Vonnegut’s work.  It is easy to go overboard when it comes to bringing Vonnegut’s unique mix of drama and satire to the screen and Mother Night does that in a few scenes, especially once Harold reaches New York.  It is still an intriguing and thought-provoking film, though.  Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as Harold and Sheryl Lee does a good job in a difficult role.

The pinnacle of Vonnegut films remains George Roy Hill’s version of Slaughterhouse-Five but Mother Night is still superior to something like Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Breakfast of Champions.

The Game’s Afoot: THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (Universal 1976)


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Sherlock Holmes has long been a favorite literary character of mine. As a youth, I devoured the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, marveling at the sleuth’s powers of observation and deduction. I reveled in the classic Universal film series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson, and still enjoy them today. I read Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” as a teen, where a coked-out Holmes is lured by Watson to Vienna to have the famed Sigmund Freud cure the detective of his addiction, getting enmeshed in mystery along the way. I’d never viewed the film version until recently, and while Meyer’s screenplay isn’t completely faithful to his book, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the novel.

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This is due in large part to a pitch-perfect cast, led by Nicol Williamson’s superb performance as Sherlock. We see Holmes at his worst…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (dir by Norman Jewison)


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Earlier tonight, I watched a 1966 film called The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.  

It’s a cheerful comedy about what happens when the captain (played by Theodore Bikel) of a Russian submarine decides that he wants to take a look at the United States.  Though he was only planning to look at America through a periscope, he accidentally runs the submarine into a sandbar sitting near Gloucester Island, which itself sits off the coast of Massachusetts.  The captain sends a nine man landing party, led by Lt. Yuri Rozanov (a youngish Alan Arkin, making his film debut and receiving an Oscar nomination for his efforts), to the island.  Their orders are simple.  Yuri and his men are too either borrow or steal a boat that can be used to push the submarine off the sandbar.  If they run into any locals, they are to claim to be Norwegian fisherman.

Needless to say, things that don’t quite go as planned.  The first Americans that Yuri and his men meet are the family of Walt Whitaker (Carl Reiner), a vacationing playwright.  Walt’s youngest son immediately identifies the Norwegian fisherman as being “Russians with submachine guns.”  When Walt laughingly asks Yuri if he’s a “Russian with a submachine gun,” Yuri produces a submachine gun and promptly takes Walt, his wife (Eva Marie Saint), and his children hostage.

Yuri may be a Russian.  He may officially be an enemy of America.  But he’s actually a pretty nice guy.  All he wants to do is find a boat, keep his men safe, and leave the island with as little drama as possible.  However, the inhabitants of the island have other plans.  As rumors spread that the Russians have landed, the eccentric and largely elderly population of Gloucester Island prepares for war.  Even as Police Chief Mattocks (Brian Keith) and his bumbling assistant, Norman Jonas (Jonathan Winters), attempt to keep everyone calm, Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford) is organizing a militia and trying to contact the U.S. Air Force.

Meanwhile, Walt’s babysitter, Allison (Andrea Dromm) finds herself falling in love with one of the Russians, the gentle Alexei Kolchin (John Phillip Law).

As I said at the start of this review, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is a cheerful comedy, one with a rather gentle political subtext, suggesting that the majority of international conflicts could be avoided if people got to know each other as people as opposed to judging them based on nationality or ideology.  There’s a rather old-fashioned liberalism to it that probably seemed quite daring in 1966 but which feels rather quaint today.  Sometimes, the comedy gets a bit broad and there were a few times that I found myself surprised that the film didn’t come with a laugh track.  But overall, this is a well-acted and likable little movie.

As I watched The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (and, as someone who is contractually obligated to use a certain number of words per review, allow me to say how much I enjoyed the length of that title), I found myself considering that the film would have seemed dated in 2013 but, with all the talk of Russian hacking in the election and everything else, it now feels a little bit more relevant.  Not a day goes by when I don’t see someone on twitter announcing that the Russians are coming.  Of course, if the film were released today, its optimistic ending would probably be denounced as an unacceptable compromise.  Peaceful co-existence is no longer as trendy as it once was.

Another interesting thing to note about The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming: though the film was written by William Rose (who also wrote another example of mild 1960s feelgood liberalism, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), it was based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley.  Benchley was the father of Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws.  It’s easy to see the eccentrics of Gloucester Island as distant cousins of the inhabitants of Amity Island.

As previously stated, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was nominated for best picture but it lost to the far more weighty A Man For All Seasons.

Quick Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (dir. by Don Scardino)


url-2I don’t have a whole lot to say about The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. It’s such a compact, little film, there’s not much I can say without telling everyone the entire story. The trailer is the movie, let’s put it that way.

When I was little, I owned this deck of magic playing cards. On the back of every card was a circular pattern that told the reader what card they were holding, the next card in the deck and the card at the bottom of the set (if they were shuffled correctly). It only lasted a few days, but the effect of doing the trick – that look of amazement when the trick actually worked – was pretty cool. Once that time passed, the trick was stale and predictable.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is kind of like that. It’s a film that probably won’t be very memorable in the long run, especially when you have other films about magic like Neil Burger’s The Illusionist and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. At the start, it seems awesome, but once the story arcs develop, you may start wondering if you need to stick around for the rest. Truth be told, it’s not a film you have to rush out to see, though there are some scenes to laugh at. On the other hand, if you’re going to the movies just to be entertained, to just laugh for a while, this may be what you’re looking for.

After receiving a magic trick set as kid and watching a training video by the great Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), young Burt Wonderstone decides he’s going to be a magician. He and his new best friend decide to train together over the years, enjoying the tricks until they become The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton. They end up doing so well that they become the headliners for a major Casino for the next 10 years, and this strains their friendship. Anton enjoys the magic for the entertainment it is, and Burt considers himself royalty, feeling a sense of entitlement for all the perks he receives. When Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) appears on the scene with his new tricks, Burt and Anton find themselves facing some serious competition. Can the duo come up with something as amazing as Grey serves up? Can Wonderstone deflate his incredibly huge ego?

The story, written by Johnathan Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) and John Francis Daley (Freaks and Geeks) is not bad for what it’s offering. Of the last 3 films I’ve seen (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Identity Thief, Jack & the Giant Slayer), it easily has the best pacing, but you can almost close your eyes and dictate what the next scene is going to be. There’s not a whole lot in the way of surprise, story wise…which I guess is what all the magic is for.  Not saying I could ever come up with anything better, though. For the director, Don Scardino, if this is first movie coming off of the 30 Rock episodes he’s done, he does a good job of keeping the story moving. The cast does well, but there’s nothing amazing with anyone here save for Carrey and Arkin. Carrell is basically himself in this film, which works well enough, and I felt that Buscemi was almost reenacting his role from The Big Lebowski. As a group, it seemed to make sense that Buscemi was the straight man to Carrell’s role.

Carrey’s Steve Grey is a lot like a David Blaine or Criss Angel, performing a mixture of illusion and stunt effects.  I have to admit that while I’m not a huge fan of Carrey’s recent efforts, I really don’t think this film would be as fun as it is without him in it. That the movie offers him up in small doses actually helps things. Olivia Wilde was nice as Wonderstone’s new assistant, but I would have liked her to do just a little more, or even better, she could have played a great rival. The same can be said of Alan Arkin, who had me smiling for most of the time he was in the film (though his appearance does kind of leave something of a plot hole in the story, but that’s just me).

The magic itself is more or less hit or miss. Depending on who you’re watching, the “tricks” were either worthy of a chuckle, made you simultaneously laugh and wince (Just about all of Grey’s were that way) or they showed one or two that made the audience at my showing gasp. For those moments, the movie was worth it, and the comedy is definitely there. Overall, I’d see this again if it were on cable or someone showed it to me, but it’s not a film I’d run right back to.

If only I could get that damn Abracadra song out of my head.

No Guts, No Glory: Lisa Marie’s Oscar Predictions


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Today is the last day for the members of the Academy to vote for the 86th Annual Academy Awards.  With that in mind, here are my predictions as to what’s going to win next Sunday.  Please note: this is not necessarily who I think should win.

Best Picture — Argo

Best Director — Ang Lee for Life of Pi

Best Actor — Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Best Actress — Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

Best Supporting Actor — Alan Arkin in Argo

Best Supporting Actress — Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables

Best Adapted Screenplay — Argo

Best Original Screenplay — Amour

Best Foreign Language Film — Amour

Best Animated Feature — Frankenweenie

Best Documentary Feature — Searching For Sugar Man

Best Production Design — Anna Karenina

Best Cinematography — Life of Pi

Best Costume Design — Anna Karenina

Best Editing — Argo

Best Makeup — The Hobbit

Best Score — Life of Pi

Best Original Song — “Skyfall” from Skyfall

Best Sound Editing — Zero Dark Thirty

Best Sound Mixing — Les Miserables

Best Visual Effects — Life of Pi

Best Animated Short — Paperman

Best Documentary Short — Open Heart

Best Live Action Short — Curfew