April 2019 Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

DUMBO (PG)
***
Many of us never expect Tim Burton to top his early period, with the Batmen and the Eds (Wood and Scissorhands), especially now that he's taken to reanimating Disney classics for an audience too young to remember when Burton was brilliantly demented. Nevertheless, his Dumbo far exceeded my expectations, partly because early reviews had made them extremely low. It gets off to a heavy beginning in 1919 with Holt (Colin Farrell) returning from the war with one less arm to the Medici (Danny DeVito) Circus where he and his late wife had done an act with horses. His children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), are waiting for him, but the horses are gone, the circus having fallen on hard times. The elephants are still there and Holt is assigned to their care, especially a female who's about to give birth. Her offspring is an oddball with huge, floppy ears. Milly, who wants to be a scientist, figures out that inhaling a feather gives him the ability to fly. Dubbed Dumbo before his skills are discovered, he soon becomes a star attraction, but Medici sells his beloved mother to keep her from distracting him. Dumbo's fame draws a bigger circus owner (Michael Keaton), whose Dreamland is like a modern theme park, only old-fashioned; and he swallows up the Medici troupe to get Dumbo. Alan Arkin and other financial types complicate the story unnecessarily, when it's already too dark and dense for viewers who don't remember when circuses had animal acts. Still it's positive overall, with enough influence from a recent film that it might have been called The Greatest Showelephant. As for the effects, aside from Dumbo's ears I defy anyone to tell what's real and what's CGI.

US (R)
**1/2
Rabbits behind the opening credits and during the climax provide appropriate bookends for Us, which is essentially a trip down a rabbit hole. Future film historians will likely list writer-producer-director Jordan Peele with James Whale, Roger Corman, John Carpenter and others as the horrormeisters of their respective eras; but while Peele avoids clichés like "beginner's luck" and "sophomore slump," his second film is ultimately less satisfying than Get Out. It gets off to a great start. I have few complaints with the first hour and Lupita Nyong'o is brilliant throughout, but the movie drags on too long with too much repetition, and becomes even more confusing when it's supposed to be explaining things. It begins in 1986, when young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is lost in a hall of mirrors in a Santa Cruz amusement park and finds one of her reflections to be more independent than the others. In the present day she's returning with her bourgeois family (Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph) to the area, where they have a summer home. Attacked by red-clad facsimiles of themselves, they retreat to the house of their wealthier (of course - they're white) friends (Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon), who have been less successful at escaping. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game has its terrifying moments but never reaches the peaks of the earlier portion. Reportedly based on a Twilight Zone episode but also suggesting Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the story draws you in but Peele doesn't know when to Get Out.

HOTEL MUMBAI (R)
**1/2
If you feel left out because you've never experienced a mass shooting or terrorist attack, Hotel Mumbai will give you an idea of what you've been missing. Based on real events of November 2008, it can hardly help being gripping and exciting, which will be enough for some viewers. But the characters – the mostly Indian staff of the Taj Hotel and their mostly Caucasian guests – aren't very interesting. Oh, they're sympathetic. Arjun the waiter (Dev Patel) and visitor David (Armie Hammer) have wives and young children, but so do lots of people. Both make mildly heroic gestures, but in David's case it makes him seem like the "white savior" character people objected to in Green Book. The terrorists, ten young Muslims, arrive in Mumbai in a small boat, phones with ear pods bringing them a steady diet of Kool-Aid from their aptly-named leader, Brother Bull, who's safely home in Pakistan. He has them carry out raids in a dozen locations within 30 minutes, including a train station, a café and the Taj Hotel. They shoot a number of people in each place, leading to a virtual siege of the hotel. Local police aren't equipped to deal with such situations so special forces have to be brought from Dehli, which takes hours. It also takes hours for Bull to mention to his followers that he wants them to take hostages, after they've killed so many potential ones. Don't get too attached to anyone, because this movie has more deaths than a grand opera based on a slasher film. It's well made but I wish the script had been equal to the direction.

THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT (R)
**1/2
There are moments when those of us who don't know the difference between neutrino messaging and optical regenerators, let alone high-frequency trading, wish The Hummingbird Project had been dumbed down a little more; but once we get into the plot we find elements that have been dumbed down too much, or maybe are just dumb. Our heroes, cousins Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgård), are too nice for the dirty business they're involved in. Because a tiny fraction of a second's advantage can be worth millions in the stock market, the guys have a plan to send data from Kansas to Wall Street in 16 milliseconds via an underground fiber optic cable. First they have to bury 1000 miles of cable in a straight line, which requires permission from countless property owners and presumably the government – a process that could take decades IRL, even without bitter opposition from their former employer, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek). Dates are established in the opening scenes but left to the imagination later. Eisenberg is his usual self as the salesman of the team, while Skarsgård is almost unrecognizable, both visually and personality-wise, as the brainy techie. We can root for their nefarious game because Hayek's is even worse, although the outcome shouldn't be surprising. With writer-director Kim Nguyen, they give us an enjoyable ride, but it doesn't hold up well in retrospect.

LITTLE WOODS (R)
***
People who can afford to go to the movies should appreciate this one about people who can't. You don't find out until near the end that the opening shot is of a remote part of the U.S.-Canada border. Sisters-by-adoption Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) live in a nearby North Dakota town. Deb works as a waitress. She has a sick young son she's raising with a little – begrudging - help from his father (James Badge Dale) and a lot from Ollie. She lives in an illegally parked trailer and is pregnant again. Ollie lives in their late mother's house, which is in foreclosure. Her backstory's not entirely clear but she's on parole and nearing the end of her probationary period. Locals look to her for drugs, mostly pain pills smuggled in from Canada; but she wants to go straight and has applied for a job in Spokane. It will cost Deb $8000 to have her baby without insurance and Ollie needs several thousand more to keep from losing the house she wants to pass on to Deb; so Ollie starts back down the old slippery slope. Written by debuting director Nia DaCosta, the story has its soapy moments but far fewer than you might expect. Thompson, in the performance to beat so far this year, makes you feel for a good person trapped in bad circumstances.

THE PUBLIC (PG-13)
***
Whatever happened to Emilio Estevez? We haven't seen him in anything in over six years; but if he spent all that time writing, directing and producing The Public, it was worth it! It made me feel all my years of social activism were not in vain. It's a question of how to help the homeless wrapped in a love letter to the public library. Stuart Goodson (Estevez) works there, having recovered from addiction and turned his life around with the help of books. Many of the people he sees every day and knows by name have not been so successful, or haven't been struck with the same ambition. Some have addictions, some are mentally ill, some are just lazy and some choose to live off the grid. They come to the library during the day for shelter, to read or use computers, and it's like a social club for many of them. But at night... It's a very cold winter in Cincinnati and the shelters are full. Someone gets the idea to "occupy" the library, turning it into an emergency homeless shelter for the night. Sure enough, about a hundred of them barricade themselves in a reading room. Stuart joins them, knowing "there but for God..." Police crisis negotiator Alec Baldwin has another problem because his son, a drug addict, has been missing for days. Stuart has romantic potential with fellow librarian Jena Malone and his apartment manager Taylor Schilling. Some people want to help, some just want the trespassers to leave, and some know the situation could get ugly. Of course there are those who turn things to their own advantage. Mayoral candidate Christian Slater paints the sit-in as a "hostage situation" and TV reporter Gabrielle Union runs with it for national exposure. Despite the seriousness of the story, Estevez' script contains plenty of humor and never gets bogged down. Why hasn't he been doing this for years?

STORM BOY (PG)
***
Will pelicans be the new penguins? They will if enough people see this Australian family drama with elements of a wildlife documentary. It has nice (and not-so-nice) human characters too, but the one you'll talk about on the way home is Mr. Percival, a bird named for a character in Lord of the Flies. The story, from a classic novel, begins in the present as Michael (Geoffrey Rush), a retired businessman, returns to the company he's left to his son, for an important board meeting to decide if they will take an action with serious consequences for the environment and local wildlife. When Michael's teen activist granddaughter Maddie (Morgana Davies) enlists his aid, it reminds him of his childhood and triggers flashbacks which occupy most of the rest of the film. Young Michael (Finn Little) lived with his father (Jai Courtney), a fisherman who home-schooled him, in an isolated setting. The boy was befriended by an indigenous black man, Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson), around the same time he rescued three baby pelicans whose mother had been shot by hunters. Two grew up and flew away but Mr. Percival, the runt of the litter, remained with Michael until his father was ready to send him away to school. There was a local fight at the time over establishing a bird sanctuary. The hunters, then and now, are one-dimensional bullies, and why they shoot pelicans is never explained; but if you're not an NRA supporter this movie will win your heart...and possibly send you shopping for a pet pelican.

SUNSET (R)
**1/2
Fans of the musical She Loves Me or its ancestor The Shop Around the Corner will be disappointed that this tale of another shop in old Budapest features neither songs nor romance. Fans of Son of Saul will be disappointed with Hungarian director and co-writer László Nemes' follow-up to that Oscar-winner. Again he keeps his protagonist in closeup most of the time so we see the world over her shoulders. Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) comes to Budapest from Trieste in 1913 and applies for work as a milliner in Leiter's, the hat shop her late parents founded 30 years ago this week. The owner, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), is rude to her – as is almost everyone – but eventually hires her. Having been orphaned at two, Irisz has a rather selective memory. She takes a room in the house she was born in, which is now a hotel, but is surprised to learn she has a brother and that he committed a grisly murder five years ago. It's not clear whether her arrival in town is coincidental, because she begins playing detective as she stumbles on information about Leiter's and the Leiters. We see a lot of Jakab's face and while her sad, determined expression is appropriate, it gets old after more than two hours without changing. Nemes is painting a portrait of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of World War I, but unless you already know a lot of the history you'll be more confused than enlightened. I saw more about the mistreatment of women than political factors leading to global conflict, and too many plot points are left unexplained.

WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY (R)
**1/2
You should consider my indifference toward Emily Dickinson in weighing my lack of enthusiasm for the latest film about the 19th-century American poet. Her poetry bores me, as did Terence Davies' 2016 film about her, A Quiet Passion. The only time she held the slightest interest for me was when I saw a stage production of Belle of Amherst. I had some hope for this revisionist biopic because it stars Molly Shannon and was written (based on her play) and directed by Madeleine Olnek, who made the refreshingly original Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same in 2011. Our narrator, Mabel (Amy Seimetz) dives into Emily's story without introducing herself, and only part of her own story emerges before the end. Though she never met Dickinson, her Massachusetts neighbor, Mabel edited and published volumes of her work after her death. (Only 11 poems were published during Emily's lifetime.) Mabel also had a torrid affair with Emily's brother, Austin (Kevin Seal), while Emily had a long affair with Austin's wife, Susan (Susan Ziegler). Their younger selves are represented, but most of the film takes place in 1880, six years before the death of "the spinster recluse (who) never left her bedroom." Shannon plays Emily, perhaps accurately but not engagingly, in somber fashion, moving through her own life like a ghost. Olnek works in some of the wonderfully bizarre bits I was hoping for, but there's not enough of her subtle humor to justify calling the film a comedy. Some of Dickinson's fans may love it, while others may be horrified to learn she was put into the closet and the coffin at the same time.

THE BRINK (NR)
**1/2
A political documentary that doesn't tell you what to think? That's so 20th century! Considering their own views are antithetical to those of their subject, Steve Bannon, director Alison Klayman and producer Marie Therese Guirgis present an amazingly balanced portrait that lets supporters cheer him on and opposers disagree as enthusiastically. Bannon had worked with Guirgis before he got involved in politics and she let him know where she stood afterward; so either he'll do anything for any kind of publicity, he correctly trusted her to be fair, or he's an idiot – or any combination of those elements. Klayman began her year of following Bannon with a camera in the fall of 2017, after he had left his position as White House chief strategist. He modestly claims Trump wouldn't have been elected without him, and says he "hated every second" he worked in the White House and felt "bad karma" there. Bannon unsuccessfully tries to get Alabama's Roy Moore elected to the Senate and interviews politicians – conservative Republicans all - who want his support in the 2018 midterm election. How or if he mends fences with Trump is never mentioned, but they're obviously still on the same side. Bannon starts working with far-right European politicians to get them to unite in advance of next month's European Parliament elections. He pushes populism and "economic nationalism" and believes in using hate and anger to motivate voters. Only hardcore political junkies will be able to keep track of all the people seen, and the film frequently detours from its basic timeline, which can be confusing. Bannon's sense of humor, often self-deprecating, softens his media image; he can be funnier than Bill Murray's portrayal of him on SNL. In moments of triumph, failure and mild embarrassment, this is Steve Bannon – like him or not.

THE CHAPERONE (NR)
**1/2
While we await the theatrical version of Downton Abbey, PBS' Masterpiece debuts a new production by the same writer (Julian Fellowes) and director (Michael Engler) on the big screen. As you might expect, it provides a great visual recreation of a distant era – here the 1920s in Wichita and New York – but is somewhat sterile emotionally, telling its tale with British reserve. It's the story of an incident in the teen years of Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) that set her on the road to stardom, first as a dancer, later as a movie star, best known for the German Pandora's Box (1929). But as the title indicates, the main character is Norma (Elizabeth McGovern), who volunteers to escort Louise to New York for a few weeks of dance classes. Norma has her own agenda for the trip. It includes getting away from her husband (Campbell Scott) for reasons gradually made clear in flashbacks, and trying to track down her birth parents through a Catholic orphanage that had sheltered her as a child. Norma is an interesting mix of conservative (against alcohol and sex) and independent (taking the gig without seeking her husband's permission). The woman and the girl both find romantic possibilities in New York and both of their lives are changed forever. If you can ignore the fact that both stars look too old for their roles, you can get caught up in their story. You'll certainly feel immersed in the period. When they go from Wichita to 1922 New York, you'll know they - and you - are not in Kansas anymore.

MASTER Z: IP MAN LEGACY (R)
***
What kind of Hong Kong martial arts movie would it be if the good guy stopped fighting and the bad guys went legit? For a minute – well, maybe not a full minute – it looks like we may find out. After losing to Master Ip, Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang) has retired from fighting and closed his Wing Chun dojo. He's running a small grocery and raising a young son, Fung. Miss Kwan (Michelle Yeoh, who was a martial artist before she was a Crazy Rich Asian), the boss of the top local gang, plans to convert to strictly legal activities within three years. She's opposed by her younger brother, Kit (Kevin Cheng), who's switched from running an opium den to dealing heroin. She's also publicly shamed by Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista), head of the outwardly legitimate Western Merchants Association. The law is in cahoots with all the bad guys. Tin Chi gets on Kit's bad side when he helps Julia (Liu Yan) stop Kit from beating Nana (Chrissie Chau), a recovering addict. Soon he's working as a waiter in the bar owned by Julia's brother and Nana's fiancé, Fu (Yu Xing). All this (and more) plot doesn't get in the way of the numerous fight scenes. Director Yuen Woo-Ping choreographed fights for the Matrix and Kill Bill films and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He had me wondering more than once how anyone thinks of these moves, let alone executes them. There are also a couple of more standard scenes of one or two men fighting off dozens at a time. I haven't kept up with all the martial arts films like I used to, but this is the best one I've seen in a long time. And galaxy-guardian Bautista could play a wall in a movie about our southern border.

ASH IS PUREST WHITE (NR)
***
Few Americans would sit through a homegrown product paced as slowly as the latest drama from acclaimed Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke; but it gives us time to take in the Chinese scenery, especially the Three Gorges area in the middle segment, and ponder cultural differences, some of which we'll never understand. It begins in 2001 in Datong, a dying mining town, where Bin (Liao Fan) is a smalltime gangster who's much respected in his clique, as is his girlfriend Qiao (Zhao Tao, the director's wife and frequent star, who gives an amazing performance). She's the only sister in their brotherhood, part of the jianghu underground. But there are other gangs in town and when one of them attacks Bin, Qiao saves him with a gun and spends five years in jail for possessing an illegal weapon, even though it was Bin's. When she gets out, in 2006, Bin has moved on but doesn't have the balls to tell Qiao, so until she hunts him down. They meet again in the final portion, set in 2017. Despite the promise of a recurring rock song that mirrors their story, don't count on a happy ending. Speaking of music, it's fun to see a Chinese club crowd dancing to "YMCA," even if they can't do the letters.

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