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  He’s been replaced by several human characters, including Colin Farrell as a one-armed, former equestrian, Eva Green as a French trapeze artist, and Danny DeVito as the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: Mojo by Peeping Tom, featuring Rahzel, Dan The Automator (2006, dir by Matt McDermitt)


This video was released 12 years ago.  Watching it today, it’s interesting that television hasn’t changed much.  The cop show, the infomercial, the porn film, the horror film, the evangelist, every single one of them is currently playing somewhere.

Yes, that is Danny DeVito sitting on the couch at the end of the video.  I like to think that he’s meant to be Frank Reynolds.

Enjoy!

Insomnia File #33: The Comedian (dir by Taylor Hackford)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you were having trouble getting to sleep around two in the morning last night, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 2016 film, The Comedian.

It probably wouldn’t have helped.  It’s not that The Comedian is a particularly interesting movie or anything like that.  Abysmally paced and full of dull dialogue, The Comedian would be the perfect cure for insomnia if it just wasn’t so damn loud.  Robert De Niro plays an aging comedian named Jackie Burke and, in this movie, being an aging comedian means that you shout out your punch lines with such force that you almost seem to be threatening anyone who doesn’t laugh.  However, the threats aren’t necessary because everyone laughs at everything Jackie says.

Actually, it’s a bit of an understatement to say that everyone laughs.  In The Comedian, Jackie is such a force of pure, unstoppable hilarity that all he has to do is tell someone that they’re fat and literally the entire world will shriek with unbridled joy.  The thing with laughter is that, in the real world, everyone laughs in a different way.  Not everyone reacts to a funny joke with an explosive guffaw.  Some people chuckle.  Some people merely smile.  But, in the world of The Comedian, everyone not only laughs the same way but they also all laugh at the same time.  There’s never anyone who doesn’t immediately get the joke and, by that same token, there’s never anyone who can’t stop laughing once everyone else has fallen silent.  The Comedian takes individuality out of laughter, which is a shame because the ability to laugh is one of the unique things that makes us human.

Anyway, The Comedian is about a formerly famous comedian who is now obscure.  He used to have a hit TV show but now he’s nearly forgotten.  Why he’s forgotten is never made clear because nearly everyone in the movie still seems to think that he’s the funniest guy in the world.  Jackie’s an insult comic and people love it when he tells them that they’re overweight or when he makes fun of their sexual preferences.  This would probably be more believable if Jackie was played by an actor who was a bit less intense than Robert De Niro.  When De Niro starts to make aggressive jokes, you’re natural instinct is not so much to laugh as it is to run before he starts bashing in someone’s head with a lead pipe.

Anyway, the plot of the film is that Jackie gets into a fight with a heckler.  The video of the fight is uploaded to YouTube, which leads to a scene where his manager (Edie Falco) stares at her laptop and announces, “It’s going viral!”  Later on, in the movie, Jackie forces a bunch of old people to sing an obnoxious song with him and he goes viral a second time.  I kept waiting for a shot of a computer screen with “VIRAL” blinking on-and-off but sadly, the movie never provided this much-needed insert.

In between beating up the heckler, ruining his niece’s wedding, and hijacking a retirement home, Jackie finds the time to fall in love with Harmony Schlitz (Leslie Mann), a character whose name alone is enough to The Comedian one of the most annoying films of all time.  Harmony’s father is a retired gangster (Harvey Keitel) and you can’t help but wish that Keitel and De Niro could have switched roles.  It wouldn’t have made the movie any better but at least there would have been a chance of Keitel going batshit insane whenever he took the stage to deliver jokes.

I’m not sure why anyone thought it would be a good idea to cast an actor like Robert De Niro as a successful comedian.  It’s true that De Niro was brilliant playing a comedian in The King of Comedy but Rupert Pupkin was supposed to be awkward, off-putting, and not very funny.  I’m not an expert on insult comics but, from what I’ve seen, it appears that the successful ones largely succeed by suggesting that they’re just having fun with the insults, that no one should take it personally, and that they appreciate any member of the audience who is willing to be a good sport.  Jackie just comes across like a cranky old misogynist.  Watching Jackie is like listening to your bitter uncle play Vegas.  I guess it would help if Jackie actually said something funny every once in a while.  A typical Jackie joke is to refer to his lesbian niece as being a “prince.”  Speaking for myself, when it comes to Robert De Niro being funny, I continue to prefer the scene in Casino where he hosts the Ace Rothstein Show.

Perhaps the funniest thing about The Comedian is that, when it originally released into theaters, it was advertised as being “The Comedian, a Taylor Hackford film,” as if Taylor Hackford is some type of Scorsese-style auteur.  Taylor Hackford has been making films for longer than I’ve been alive and he has yet to actually come up with any sort of signature style beyond point and shoot.  The second funniest thing is that The Comedian was billed as a potential Oscar contender, up until people actually saw the damn thing.

Though it may have failed at the box office, The Comedian seems to show up on Starz quite frequently.  They always seem to air it very late at night, as if they’re hoping people won’t notice.  

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk

Music Video of the Day: Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr. (1984, dir. Ivan Reitman)


I wish the literal video for this was still up. Oh, well.

All these years later, I still don’t have any idea why she goes into that house. I guess we are supposed to believe she lives there with these two kids that miss their cue?

These other kids nail it.

Despite finding lists of all the celebrities in this video, I have no idea who this guy is that Ray Parker Jr. becomes for this bit.

I also wonder why she didn’t see him while turning away from the moving table to go to the window.

In the window is footage of the movie that has aged horribly. Parker Jr. is blue screened in there for this famous shot.

He ain’t afraid of no ghost. A lawsuit on the other the hand, that’s a different matter. I hope this music video doesn’t remind me of a Huey Lewis & The News video as well.

Now Ray Parker Jr. stands creepily outside of her window.

This is looking familiar.

Chevy Chase can call Ghostbusters if he has a ghost problem…

but what about if he gets stuck in Benji again?

Who can he call then?

I knew this looked familiar.

Do You Believe In Love by Huey Lewis & The News (1982)


Do You Believe In Love by Huey Lewis & The News (1982)

I’m sure it’s a coincidence. I just find it humorous to see that considering the lawsuit saying that this song ripped off, to one extent or another, the Huey Lewis & The News song I Want A New Drug. The scene above is from the video that helped kick off their career on MTV and set the tone for their future videos since it was such a success despite being ridiculous. Is the riff in You Crack Me Up…

sound like the same riff from Johnny And Mary by Robert Palmer?

Or is it just me?

What a feeling. Thanks for making that one easy, Irene Cara.

Something tells me that Cindy Harrell was hired by someone who saw the movie Model Behavior (1982), which she was in.


Model Behavior (1982, dir. Bud Gardner)


Model Behavior (1982, dir. Bud Gardner)

From what I’ve read, they just showed up on the set of a movie Candy was shooting to try and get him to make this cameo appearance.

Ray Parker Jr. rising from the top of the stairs like he’s Michael Myers come to kill her. Why?

Or at least scare her. It’s probably a reference to Gozer.

Melissa Gilbert. I have no idea what she’s doing here. I’ve only seen an episode or two of Little House On The Prairie, so I guess there could have been some episodes with ghosts. Some of these cameos feel like they happened because the celebrities were involved with NBC.

Speaking of cameos I can’t explain, it’s former baseball player Ollie Brown.

Boundaries!

I do like that for the majority of the shot it looks like she should be falling over but isn’t.

More people that Parker can summon for some reason.

Don’t worry about them.

Pose for the featured image of this post.

Thank you.

Jeffrey Tambor.

Is it 555-5555…

or 555-2368 as you showed earlier?

George Wendt apparently got in trouble with the Screen Actors Guild for his appearance in this video. I’ll link to the article with that information at the end.

Senator Al Franken.

Now we get a series of confusing cameos.

Danny DeVito. I think this is only the second music video he has ever been in. The other one was for the song Billy Ocean did for The Jewel Of The Nile (1985).

Carly Simon for some reason. She would go on to do the theme song to Working Girl (1988) with Sigourney Weaver. Maybe they were friends. I don’t know.

Umm…one more thing. Have you tried calling the Ghostbusters? No clue as to why Peter Falk is here.

The breakdancing was improvised. So was Parker Jr. pushing Bill Murray around.

I think Teri Garr has one of the best cameos.

Don’t swallow that cigarette, Chevy.

Fun fact: In European and other non-US markets, the “no” sign was flipped.

If you want to read some more information about the video, then follow this link over to ScreenCrush where they have a write-up on the video with information from people who worked on the video.

According to mvdbase, Ivan Reitman directed, Keith Williams wrote the script, Jeff Abelson produced it, Daniel Pearl shot it, and Peter Lippman was the production manager.

If you ever get a chance to watch the literal music video for this, then do so. I doubt it will surface again though seeing as this music video almost didn’t get an official release because of the issues surrounding all the cameos.

Enjoy!

Film Review: All The Wilderness (dir by Michael Johnson)


All the Wilderness

I recently watched an excellent little film called All The Wilderness.

James Charm (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a shy and withdrawn teenager who is still struggling to deal with the recent death of his father.  He spends his time wandering around the forest surrounding the house where he lives with his mother (Virginia Madsen).  Occasionally, he makes his way into the nearby city and aimlessly wanders through the desolate streets.  In his spare time, he sketches pictures of dead animals and tells people that he can predict when they are going to die.  When he informs the local bully that he’s going to die in just a few more days, the bully responds by punching James in the face.

Sometimes, James visits a therapist (Danny DeVito) who seems to alternate between concern and indifference.  One day, while sitting in the waiting room, James meets Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), who is dealing with her parents’ divorce and spends her time making and selling eccentric doughnuts.  James likes Val but he’s too scared to open up to her.  Some of that may have to do with the mysterious, hooded figures who occasionally materialize out of thin air and pursue him through the streets.

After sneaking out of one unproductive therapy session, James discovers a mysterious man named Harmon (Evan Ross) playing a piano in a courtyard.  Later, after his hamster mysteriously dies, a distraught James sneaks out of his house, makes his way down to the city, and gets on a bus.  Sitting across from him is none other than Harmon.

Harmon invites James to follow him on a trip into the hidden corners of the city.  Soon, James is discovering that the wilderness is not only limited to the countryside surrounding his mother’s house.  There’s also an urban wilderness and, with Harmon as his guide, James starts to discover it.  And yet, even as James starts to find happiness, those hooded figures continue to follow him…

All The Wilderness reminded me a lot of last year’s underappreciated California Scheminganother atmospheric look at alienation that was full of existential dread.  All The Wilderness is probably not a film for everyone.  Not only is it extremely stylized but it’s also a bit too short.  All The Wilderness is one of the few films that could actually benefit from an additional 30 minutes added to its running time.

And yet, flaws and all, All The Wilderness is a great film and one that everyone should take the time to see.  It is perched so precariously between being insightful and being pretentious that it becomes oddly compelling to watch the film’s valiantly struggle to maintain its balance.  Visually, this is an incredible film just to look at, with the constantly moving camera capturing images of ominous yet undeniably beautiful urban decay.  In small roles, both Danny DeVito and Virginia Madsen are well-cast while Evan Ross is appropriately charismatic as Harmon.  Finally, Kodi Smit-McPhee — all grown up from his heartbreaking performances in The Road and Let Me In — gives a wonderful and versatile performance in the lead role.

All The Wilderness is a film that deserves to be seen.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #72: Terms of Endearment (dir by James L. Brooks)


Terms_of_Endearment,_1983_film

I have to admit that, when I first sat down and watched the 1983 best picture winner Terms of Endearment, I was actually taken by surprise.  Before I actually saw it, I was under the impression that Terms of Endearment was considered to be one of the weaker films to win best picture.  I had read a few reviews online that were rather dismissive of Terms, describing it as being well-made but overrated.

But then, a few weeks ago, I watched Terms of Endearment on Netflix.  The film started with a scene of new mother Aurora Greenwood (Shirley MacClaine) obsessively checking on her daughter, Emma.  Stepping into the bedroom, Aurora is, at first, scared that Emma’s dead.  Without bothering to take off her high heels, Aurora nearly climbs into the crib to check on her.  Fortunately, Emma starts to cry.

And I laughed because I’ve been told about how my mom used to obsessively check in on me when I was a baby.  And, while my mom was never the type to wear high heels around the house, I could still imagine her climbing into a crib to check on me and my sisters.

And then, when Emma (now played by Debra Winger) married Flap Horton (a very young Jeff Daniels) over the objections of her mother, I smiled but I didn’t laugh because, in this case, I was relating to Emma.  Because the fact of the matter is that every girl has known a boy like Flap Horton, the smart and funny guy who is destined to ultimately hurt her.

And when Flap got a job in Des Moines and Emma moved from Houston to Iowa, I knew — as did Aurora — what was going to happen.  I knew that Flap would deal with his insecurity over not being a good provider for his wife and children by cheating on his wife.  And when he did, I wanted to cry with Emma.

But then I wanted to cheer when Emma has an affair of her own.  In the role of Sam, John Lithgow doesn’t have much screen time in Terms of Endearment but he does get the best line.  When a rude cashier claims that she doesn’t feel that she was being rude to Emma, Sam replies, “Then you must be from New York.”

Meanwhile, the widowed Aurora is having an affair of her own.  Jack Nicholson plays Garrett Breedlove, a former astronaut who now has both a drinking problem and a house with a pool.  Garrett gets Aurora to loosen up.  Aurora makes Garrett realize that he actually is capable of being a decent guy.  MacClaine and Nicholson both won Oscars for their performances here and they deserved them.

And then, Emma was diagnosed with cancer.  And I cried and cried because, at this point, I had come to think of Emma and Aurora as being real people.  And when Emma told her friends that she was dying and she spent her final days with her children, I sobbed because it made me think about my mom.  And now I’m sobbing as I write this review.

But it’s a great film, even if it did make me cry.  Because, in the end, you’re glad that you got to know these characters.  And, even through the tears, the film leaves you happy that you got to spend some time with them.

And isn’t that what a great film is supposed to do?

Back to School #59: The Virgin Suicides (dir by Sofia Coppola)


the-virgin-suicides-the-virgin-suicides-189395_1020_576

For the past three and a half weeks, I’ve been taking a chronological look at some of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable teen and high school films ever made.  We started with two films from 1946, I Accuse My Parents and Delinquent Daughters.  Therefore, it seems somewhat appropriate that we close out both the 90s and the 20th Century by taking a look at a film about both delinquent daughters and accusatory parents.  That film is Sofia Coppola’s 1999 directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides.

Much like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola seems to divide viewers and, in many ways, for the exact same reasons.  You either get her films about upper class ennui or you don’t.  Everyone seems to love Lost in Translation but viewers and critics seem to be far more polarized when it comes to rest of her films.  It seems the people either love them or hate them.  Well, you can count me among those who love her films.  (Yes, even Somewhere.)  To me, Sofia Coppola is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today and the dismissive reaction that many (mostly male) critics have towards her films has little do with her talent and much more to do with her gender and her last name.

So there.

In The Virgin Suicides, Coppola tells the story of the five Lisbon sisters.  They live in an upper middle class suburbs in the 1970s.  Their parents — math teacher Ronald (James Woods) and his wife (Kathleen Turner) — are devoutly Catholic and very protective.  The Lisbon sisters are rarely allowed to leave the house and, as a result, the neighborhood boys are obsessed with them.  (Though the film centers on four unnamed boys, there’s only one narrator, voiced by Giovanni Ribisi,  who continually refers to himself as being “we,” as if all four boys are telling the story in the same voice.)  When the youngest Lisbon daughter commits suicide, Ronald and his wife become even more protective.

At the start of the school year, the oldest daughter, Lux (Kirsten Dunst), meets and starts to secretly date the wonderfully named Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett).  Lux is even allowed to attend the homecoming dance with Trip but, after she breaks curfew, Mrs. Lisbon reacts by pulling Lux and her sisters out of school and basically making them prisoners in their own home.

(In one of the film’s best moments, we flash forward to see present day Trip talking about his date with Lux. Needless to say, Trip did not age well.)

With the Lisbon sisters even more isolated, the neighborhood boys become even more obsessed with them.  One day, the boys get a note from the girls, asking for their help in escaping.  The boys go to meet the girls, leading the film to its haunting conclusion…

Full of themes of sin, sexuality, repression guilt, redemption, and martyrdom, The Virgin Suicides is one of those films that you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate but it probably helps.  James Woods, Josh Hartnett, and Kirsten Dunst all give good performances while Sofia Coppola fills the movie with dream-like and sensual images, all designed to challenge the viewer’s perception of whether or not we’re watching reality or just the idealized memories of someone still struggling to comprehend a mystery from the past.

The Virgin Suicides is the perfect movie to end with the 90s on.

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