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Dumbo to Beach Bum and Everything In Between in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Dumbo to Beach Bum and Everything In Between in TheatersPhoto still from "Woman at War," via IMDb.
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Weird mix of stuff in theaters this weekend. Disney’s big reboot or a riveting true story of terrorism and heroism? Matthew McConaughey getting high with Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett or an Icelandic vigilante with a string quartet in tow? Let’s dig in.

Dumbo

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There was something so terrifyingly perfect in the idea of Tim Burton reimagining Disney’s 1941 circus tearjerker Dumbo. If anyone could rediscover, perhaps even amplify the grotesque tragedy lurking at the heart of this outsider sideshow, it should be Burton.

He seems at home with the material.

Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is basically Dumbo: an innocent misfit, safe only with the one who birthed him, tragically loses that protector and must face a cold, ugly and abusive world that accepts him only because of what it can gain from the very oddities it mocks.

Dumbo is maybe the most emotionally battering film Walt Disney ever unleashed on unsuspecting families. But Burton seems thrown off course by a hero seeking release over acceptance, and instead of that macabre sense of wonder that infuses Burton’s best efforts, he seems content to bite the white-gloved hand that is feeding him.

Dumbo, the wing-eared baby elephant himself, does come to impressive CGI life – all grey wrinkles, long lashes and big, beautifully expressive eyes.

The film’s other squatty little character – Danny DeVito – is also a joy to watch. As circus owner Max Medici, DeVito charms every moment onscreen, and seeing him face to face again with Michael Keaton (as the shady, badly-wigged amusement park magnate V.A. Vandevere) is a nostalgic hoot.

The balance of the cast — Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green — fluctuates from passable to painful while staying consistently detached, and any true emotional connection just cannot take root, despite the inherent head start.

Because let’s be honest, many parents will be carrying an emotional connection into the theater with them, perfectly ready to surrender to the ugly cry moment they know is coming.

And it does…but it doesn’t, the scene strangely cut off at the knees to serve a bloated narrative that adds nothing but running time. True movie magic, heartbreaking or otherwise, is nowhere to be found.

The only interesting thing Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring, several Transformers installments) do, via the Vandevere character and his theme park, is deride the film’s parent company. It’s nearly impossible to view “Dreamland” as anything but a Disneyland stand-in, and equally difficult to decipher the purpose.

Are they calling out rampant consumerism, unsavory Disney memories such as Song of the South or none of the above? Whatever the answer, it only adds to the confusion found in the center ring of this misguided update.

Grade: C

Hotel Mumbai

by Brandon Thomas

On November 26, 2008, 10 Pakistani terrorists launched a coordinated attack in the Indian city of Mumbai. At least 174 people were killed, with 31 dying inside of the Taj Hotel where the initial attack turned into a four-day siege.

In the modern era, terrorism has become an ever-present part of our lives. Cinema’s response has been to turn these perpetrators into moustache-twirling villains with a penchant for money more than ideology. Only in the wake of 9/11 did filmmakers routinely start to tackle terrorism with gravitas. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and Steven Spielberg’s Munich were two of the first films in this wave to treat terrorism in film as something more than an excuse to blow something up. Hotel Mumbai’s terrifying journey into the 2008 attacks places it firmly alongside these latter day efforts.

Hotel Mumbai follows a handful of guests (Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs and Nazanin Boniadi) and hotel staff (Dev Patel and Anupam Kher) as they struggle to survive the armed assault by four gunmen. As the ordeal continues and family and friends are separated from one another, the surviving hotel employees band together to help keep the guests as safe as humanly possible.

The tension flowing through every second of Hotel Mumbai is palpable. When the violence begins, it’s shocking and matter-of-fact in its ferocity. Director Anthony Maras wisely keeps the action grounded, using a lot of hand-held camerawork to create a chaotic feel. There’s an eerie sense of normalcy to what’s happening that gets under your skin.

Speaking of normalcy, making the heroes of Hotel Mumbai the hotel guests, waiters and kitchen staff only adds to that sense of realism. We’ve already seen the version of this movie where the star is a cop or an elite team of commandos. Watching the hotel staff work together to usher the remaining guests to safety adds an emotional element that would be missing if this was simply an “action movie.”

Patel leads the pack with a riveting performance that isn’t showy or recycled. His character of Arjun is in complete contrast to the men terrorizing the hotel, his sense of honor and purpose driven by saving people.

Hotel Mumbai offers an unflinching look at the horror of terrorism. Thankfully, it also shows us that true heroism can exist even in the darkest of moments.

Grade: A-

Beach Bum

by George Wolf

Though it shares much more of the mind-altered DNA found in the works of Cheech, Chong or S. Thompson, The Beach Bum left me quoting directly from John Hughes.

“You know when you’re telling these little stories? Have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”

Writer/director Harmony Korine spent years as the cult auteur behind such WTF classics as Gummo and Trash Humpers, only to go semi-mainstream in 2012 with Spring Breakers, a surprisingly coherent pop culture rumination buoyed by a memorable turn from James Franco.

The Beach Bum‘s star power burns bright courtesy of Matthew McConaughey, which has to be the main reason the film got this size budget, promotion and release. But after watching him party with Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Buffett while wearing women’s clothing for 90 minutes, even the effortlessly likable McConaughey’s welcome wears thin.

He’s Moondog, a legendary gonzo poet who hangs in Key West while his uber-wealthy wife Minnie (Isla Fisher) tends their mansion in Miami. Reality comes calling when the Mrs. cuts off the gravy train, kicking him out and insisting that he dry out and finally write his novel if he wants to regain access to the family funds.

What to do?

Smoke some weed? Drink some beers? Bust out of rehab and wreak some havoc with Zac Efron? Sure, and maybe write a little bit on that old manual typewriter he drags around.

It’s all drenched in yacht rock (yes, that is “Key Largo” crooner Bertie Higgins), “Boats ‘N Hoes” bad boy style and improvisational freedom, and it makes for a shallow brew with a murky purpose.

Is Moondog’s crazy journey just an after-effect of Snoop Dogg’s special blend, Korine’s final ode to his wild past, or what?

What is clear is that after trying his hand at social commentary with Spring Breakers, Korine wants to have a good time. No doubt he and the cast (also including Johan Hill and Martin Lawrence) had a blast filming it, and good for them.

For the rest of us, though, The Beach Bum is a mildly funny one trick pony, a rambling barfly always cracking up at his own jokes.

Grade: C-

Woman at War

by Rachel Willis

One of the best things about Woman at War is the hero, Halla (a superb Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). Not often do we see a heroic middle-aged woman, but that’s exactly what we get in director Benedikt Erlingsson’s odd, charming, thrilling comedic fairy tale about a female warrior fighting against the devastating environmental effects of a local aluminum plant.

Like any superhero, by day Halla is a model citizen protecting her secret identity as the “Mountain Woman.” A choir director who rides her bicycle to work, she lives a seemingly routine life. But her inner turmoil compels her to fight the environmental destruction she sees happening in the name of greed.

A wrench is thrown into Halla’s life when she learns that her dreams of adopting a child are finally coming to fruition. A little girl in Ukraine needs a home, and Halla wants a chance at motherhood as much as she wants to fulfill her mission.

Emphasizing the film’s heroic theme, musicians play the score onscreen. In terms of stage theater, it’s reminiscent of a choir that typically opens a play by setting the scene. Then by popping up throughout the acts, they keep the audience apprised of things happening “off stage.” Erlingsson uses these musicians to similar, if not exact, effect, and it’s a unique way to demonstrate Halla’s internal conflict.

To underscore the motif of the importance of environmental preservation, we’re treated to many scenes of Iceland’s vast natural beauty. Halla uses the environment to her advantage, finding out of the way locations to sabotage power lines (skillfully using a bow and arrow), effectively cutting power to the plant. She hides from authorities in natural fissures in the ground, and earns her media-branded nickname by being of the earth that she seeks to save.

Interesting questions are raised in connection with Halla’s mission. When does activism become extremism? What actions will we accept as the effects of climate change become more and more drastic? What will we do to protect our home?

Because Woman at War is interested in these questions, and it’s time we make a serious attempt to answer them.

Grade: A

The Hummingbird Project

by Christie Robb

Director Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project contributes a meditation into the nature of success in the modern world.

Wall Street traders and cousins Vincent and Anton Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard) resign from their jobs as high-frequency traders and embark on a quest to build a ramrod-straight fiber-optic cable joining the servers of the Kansas and New York stock exchanges. The objective: to make stock trades a millisecond faster than their competitors and make millions in the time it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wings.

Obstacles block their path — mountains, swamps, health issues, reluctant property owners, and a vengeful ex-boss played by Salma Hayek.

The technobabble in the film feels like it is based-on-a-true story. But, it isn’t. Eisenberg plays Vincent as a monomaniac. He’s almost as focused on his line as Ahab is consumed by destroying Moby-Dick. Skarsgard disappears into the role of Anton, contorting his height into an excruciating stoop and delivering a genius-on-the-spectrum performance that is nuanced, funny, sad, and kind of inspiring.

The Hummingbird Project is often beautifully shot, with frequent use of slow motion footage. However, it struggles in focus. It could easily have been tweaked into several different movies. One can imagine editing it into a comedy like Office Space. It could have been Hitchcockian corporate thriller by expanding Hayek’s role. Or it could have shone more of a spotlight on the relationship between characters to flesh out what seems to be the movie’s purpose: questioning whether racing for wealth is really a better use of time than downshifting to spend time with the people around you.

As it is, the movie tries to be too many things and ends up being an ok entry rather than a good one.

Grade: C-

Also screening in Columbus:

The Field Guide to Evil (NR)
Lakshmis NTR (NR)
Our Time (NR)
Suryakantam (NR)
Super Deluxe (NR)
Unplanned (R)
A Vigilante (R)
White Chamber (R)

Read more from George and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to his weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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