Movie Review: ‘Dumbo’ Takes Flight on the Strength of Some Truly Captivating CGI

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CREDIT: Disney Enterprises

Starring: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Alan Arkin

Director: Tim Burton

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: PG for Steampunk-Style Circus-Based Peril and Implied PTSD

Release Date: March 29, 2019

CGI has become so commonplace in modern big-budget filmmaking that it is hard to be impressed anymore, even when there is clearly hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coding and manpower up on the screen. Correspondingly, the possibility of feeling a genuine connection with a computer-generated character often feels generally impossible. I would not expect that hurdle to be cleared by Disney’s live-action remake factory or late-era Tim Burton. But incredibly, the title baby pachyderm in Dumbo is one of the best CGI creations in a while. Ever, even. It usually seems that practical effects are necessary to create a spirit-filled non-human character, but this is something unique that could really only be achieved with digital technology. And it is amazingly quite soulful.

From the moment that Dumbo emerged from a pile of hay and looked up at everyone around him with his wonder-filled baby blues, I was enthralled. The magical floppy ears are just a bonus. But oh, what a bonus they are. Every single time that Dumbo took flight rendered me immediately choked up and awestruck. But as joyous as those moments are, I would have been won over by this little guy even he couldn’t fly. I loved seeing his eyes light up at the circus amusements (it’s the same thrill I get from watching YouTube videos of dogs who think that they’re people), especially the homage to the originals “Pink Elephants on Parade” done entirely through bubble form.

As for the human characters, and there are plenty of them, they mostly fill their roles admirably, but none are as unforgettable as Dumbo. Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins are delightful as a young brother-sister pair who have the closest connection to the beast, while Colin Farrell reliably pulls off the right emotional beats as their widowed father who lost an arm in World War I. Danny DeVito is right in his wheelhouse as a small-time circus ringmaster and owner who finds his full fatherly-protector spirit once he starts drawing in crowds like he’s never seen. He matches ambitions with Michael Keaton’s rival showman who wants to exploit Dumbo for his full wealth-generating potential. The message about the dehumanizing effects of capitalism is clear and welcome, though there could have been more room to explore a more complicated take on that theme. But ultimately, you can get away with a few minor disappointments if the main attraction is undeniably flying high.

Dumbo is Recommended If You Like: The original Dumbo, Cute animal videos, Batman Returns, A cameo from Michael Buffer (the “Let’s get ready to rumble!” guy)

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Feathers

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Switches Back and Forth Between Amusingly Diverting and Alarmingly Deadly

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This review was originally published on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., Laura Harrier, Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, Tony Revolori, Martin Starr

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Usual Superhero Action

Release Date: July 7, 2017

The problem with the two Spider-Man movies with Amazing in the title (as opposed to the Spider-Man movies that could be accurately described as “amazing”) is that they hewed too closely to what had already been told in recent cinematic history. Spider-Man: Homecoming (the first Spidey flick to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) avoids that issue by crafting a Peter Parker (here played by 21-year-old Tom Holland, who easily passes for 15) that is markedly different than any classic conception. Rather than bounding himself by the code of “with great power comes great responsibility,” this Spider-Man bounds into any crisis with reckless abandon. As a big proponent of not being beholden to source material, I admire this decision, but I wish that director Jon Watts and his team of co-screenwriters had a stronger handle on what exactly this conception means.

This is very much a high school movie, with its emphasis on episodic, almost sitcom-esque structure. But it is also a superhero action flick, so the threats are just as deadly and just as adult as they are in any other Spider-Man or any Avengers film. The tonal bridge between these two halves is plentifully whiplash-inducing. It is absolutely fine to awaken a hero to the dangers of the world, because the hero’s journey has been fruitful for centuries of storytelling, and it is a valuable representation of real-life maturation. Even switching back to scenes of high school shenanigans after fights with the most wanted criminals is theoretically acceptable, because mundanity does exist right alongside evil. But it requires a deft hand to make that balancing act entertaining and palatable, a feat whose difficulty Homecoming vastly underestimates.

What Homecoming succeeds at most is its skillfulness at making fun of itself, or the MCU more generally. I often find blockbuster stabs at humor to be glib and obvious, but it helps when you have comedy heavyweights like Hannibal Buress, Martha Kelly, and Martin Starr (whom Community fans will note is essentially reviving his performance as Professor Cligoris). Still, as funny as it is, it feels out of place. After all, it is essentially window-dressing to the fight that Peter takes up against arms dealing Adrian Toomes (a controlled, but thoroughly sniveling Michael Keaton), who eventually takes flight as a mechanized version of classic comics baddie the Vulture. We’ve previously seen Spidey get into predicaments as stressful as what he gets into here (a rescue atop the Washington Monument, holding together the two halves of a fissured Staten Island Ferry), but never against the context of a Spider-Man who actually looks like a teenager.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark stops by for several scenes to lend a hand in some of these most dangerous moments. Holland does not need RDJ’s help to make his first big starring vehicle work, but Peter Parker does need Iron Man’s help to avoid killing himself. It is that alarming realization that makes it clear that this ostensibly light and fluffy actioner has maybe taken on more weight than it can bear. Still, it is enjoyable when it allows itself to be kid’s stuff.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is Recommended If You Like: The Other Spider-Man Movies But Wish That Peter Parker Actually Looked Like a Teenager and That Everyone Was Hitting on Aunt May

Grade: 3.5 out 5 Best Sandwiches in Queens

 

This Is a Movie Review: Spotlight

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SpotlightNewsroom

There is an inherent drama and urgency in the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal that a film about it does not need to do any work to tease out. But just perfunctorily putting the Boston Globe’s investigation of this story does not automatically make for a great movie. Luckily, director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer make plenty of astute filmmaking decisions alongside their similarly tuned-in cast and crew.

Recognizing that the story itself is plenty powerful (the epilogue text detailing the extent of the abuse is perhaps the most overwhelming moment in any movie this year), the actors on the Spotlight team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James) keep it understated. As victims’ lawyer Mitch Garabedian, Stanley Tucci is labeled eccentric, but he is actually also low-key. The production design, cinematography, and costumes are all also appropriately drab.

The plot manages to legitimately earn the descriptor “action,” with the editing favoring cross-cutting between various story threads. This plays out as such: Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) tracks down evidence at the courthouse, and before we find out if he uncovers the right puzzle piece, we check in on Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) interviewing a victim, but before she gets out all her questions, it cuts back to Mike, and then it cuts around to the rest of the team. This is just Filmmaking 101, creating tension and establishing engagement. Spotlight makes a difference, and it is thrilling.

SNL Recap April 4, 2015: Michael Keaton/Carly Rae Jepsen

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SNL: Carly Rae Jepsen, Michael Keaton (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in April 2015.

Michael Keaton’s innate charm was on full display during this past awards season.  That was not as present in his third “SNL” hosting stint (and first in over 20 years).  Instead, he reminded viewers of his dark side.  While he never actually suited up as Batman or Beetlejuice during the episode, his roles did seem to be inspired by that portion of his career.  The result was a surplus of oddly severe sketches, some of which were praiseworthy in their boldness, but others which were cringeworthy in their difficulty to watch.

Final Four Postgame – “SNL” was operating right down to the wire here, as the Wisconsin-Kentucky game ended only about 15 minutes before the start of the show.  That was no big deal, as the actual result did not heavily factor into this sketch, though there could have been a problem if the game had gone into overtime and lasted past 11:30.  Anyway, this sketch was really about the eternal conflict between the two sides of the student-athlete identity.  The alternate reality presented here – in which a star player like Duke’s Jahlil Okafor would miss the championship because of a biology test – was appreciably silly, but also way too obvious.  This would have been much more reliable if it had just focused on the announcing crew.  It would have been inconsequential, sure, but the latest gambling misadventures of Kenan’s Charles Barkley (now he’s got to eat a basketball) have more energy than a crack about Coach K’s $10 million salary. C+

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