Dumbo

Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Finlay Hobbes, Alan Arkin

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Ehren Kruger


At 64 minutes long and made with a relatively modest budget for the time (less than $1 million), the 1941 Dumbo is one of the simplest and least ostentatious films in the Disney canon. It tells the tale of a baby elephant who is born in a circus, is separated from his mother, and is eventually reunited with her when his ability to fly turns him into a sensation. The film is admirably economic in its storytelling, refusing to indulge in subplots or characters that don’t have a direct role to play in the titular character’s arc; the one scene that does not make any contribution to the narrative is the Pink Elephant Parade, which gets a pass by virtue of being one of the most outstanding animated sequences ever put to film. The result of their efforts is an affective and disturbing film that has endured as a classic for decades. That the film compels you to feel such sympathy and regard for a protagonist who never utters a single word throughout is a testament to the expressiveness of Disney’s animation and the clarity of their storytelling. This 2019 live-action remake, which is twice as long as the original, was made with a budget of $170 million, and was helmed by the creative mind behind Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, doesn’t even come close to meeting its predecessor’s standard.

Dumbo, a CGI elephant with abnormally large ears and huge, blue eyes, is barely the main character in his own story this time around. The film seems to be much more interested in following the human characters, of which there are far more than there were in the cartoon. The most prominent of them is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a circus performer who has just returned from the First World War having lost one of his arms in combat. His wife has also died from influenza by this point, leaving him in sole charge of their children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). The Medici Brothers’ Circus, run by the brotherless Max Medici (Danny DeVito), has also fallen on dire straits and had to sell Holt’s horses in his absence. Holt is thus placed in charge of the elephant Mrs. Jumbo, who soon gives birth to her big-eared baby. Jumbo Jr. is brought into the circus act but his debut goes awry when the crowd catches sight of his malformation. Dumbo, as they cruelly call him, becomes a laughing stock, leading his mother to violently lash out. She gets sold off, leaving Dumbo sad and alone. Later on the inquisitive children discover Dumbo’s miraculous ability to fly and realise that they can use his unique ability to boost ticket sales and raise the money they need to buy Dumbo’s mother back.

That is pretty much the plot to the 1941 film, only instead of a talking mouse and an ensemble of racist crows, we get the Farrier family blues and Dumbo donning some clown makeup. By the time this film gets there though, we’ve barely made it to the halfway mark. There’s still a whole lot of movie to go as V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a flamboyant and enigmatic business tycoon, catches wind of the magnificent flying elephant. He whisks Dumbo and the rest of his carnival troupe off to his mammoth Coney Island amusement park Dreamland. This glitzy realm of wonders and attractions (a magic kingdom, if you will) becomes the setting for the remainder of the film as the avaricious, young-at-heart Vandevere proceeds with his plan to exploit this awe-inspiring, juvenile phenomenon with his capitalist machine for all it is worth. Whether Burton is making some kind of allusion to Disney and his own experiences of working with them, I can only speculate; then again that might be crediting the film with more self-awareness or substance than it merits. Either way, Keaton and Dreamland do at least bring some light and energy to what had heretofore been a drab and characterless film. If there’s one thing Burton can still do well, it’s playing around in a detailed and visually inventive setting with some colourful, if otherwise soulless, characters.

Dumbo, a CGI elephant who is impossibly cute while somehow simultaneously being a grotesque, photorealistic abomination, barely has any agency in his own story. His narrative passivity isn’t necessarily a flaw, he is a baby elephant after all, but without any strong sense of character he effectively functions as more of an animated prop than a protagonist. The simulation is expressive enough that it’s no great effort to identify Dumbo’s emotional state in the happier and sadder scenes, what’s less clear is how much he actually understands what’s happening around him in a given moment. There is an attempt to establish a connection between Dumbo and the one-armed Holt, who apparently sees something of a kindred spirit in the physically deformed elephant (kind of like Hiccup and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon). However, if this bond is supposed to be understood as reciprocal between them, there is no indication that it is so on Dumbo’s end. He just pretty much sits there and grins at whoever happens to approach him the way that a cheerful infant with no understanding of the world would. One might not have even noticed that the relationship between Holt and Dumbo was even supposed to be a particular point of focus were it not evident in Farrell’s performance.

It is only by virtue of employing actors as talented as Farrell, Keaton, DeVito and Green (who plays a French trapeze artist tasked with riding Dumbo as he flies in Vandevere’s show) that their characters are able to convey any kind of humanity. The two who suffer the most in the movie are the children, whose performances are necessarily more reliant on the direction than the adults. Parker is the more prominent of the two and, if I were to learn that Burton had explicitly instructed not to display a single emotion throughout the production, it would not surprise me in the slightest. She plays a girl who follows in the example set by Mackenzie Foy’s character in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms of young heroines whose single personality trait is scientific inquisitiveness. The film doesn’t even attempt to integrate it into the story in a way that might feel at least vaguely organic; they just have her outright state her interest in “the scientific method” at every given opportunity. Even then, it doesn’t inform her growth as a character or figure into the larger themes of the story (a scientifically-minded child grappling with the reality of flying elephant might have made for an interesting source of friction, to give one example), it just comes across as a lazy attempt to score brownie points with feminist critics in search of smarter, more progressive female characters in big-budget children’s movies without bothering to write one.

Watching these live-action remakes make the same mistakes all over again year after year is getting so old that I’m as bored of writing about them as I am of watching them. Half of the problems in Dumbo are about trying to fix what was never broken (sans the racist crows) and the other half come about from errors in story, character and filmmaking that are so elementary, they wouldn’t even meet student film standards. All through the first half of the film, for example, the main concerns are on Dumbo being regarded as an outcast and on the familial troubles he and Holt suffer. All of a sudden, as soon as Dumbo learns to fly, a character we’ve never heard of before appears and moves the action to a location we’ve also never heard of and, just like that, the story becomes more about the evils of big business and the shamefulness of animal captivity and showmanship. These two halves have so little to do with one another, they may as well have been two separate films. What’s worse, they even screw up the ‘Baby Mine’ by having the song come from a source that’s entirely divorced from the moment! Dumbo is so ill conceived in so many aspects from its very structure down to the characterisation and motivations that I find myself wondering yet again why Disney even bothered in the first place. The an$wer, of cour$e, i$ a$ obviou$ a$ the$e movie$ are weari$ome.

★★

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr.

Director: Jon Watts

Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers


This movie is a big deal for Marvel. For decades Spider-Man has been the comic book company’s flagship character; he is to Marvel what Superman is to DC. After two movie franchises in a little over a decade, one that became too silly for its own good and one that crashed under the weight of all the characters and stories it was trying to juggle, Sony has finally made a deal with Marvel to bring Spider-Man into the MCU. After a wonderfully received debut by Tom Holland in Civil War, Homecoming now marks the character’s third cinematic introduction a mere fifteen years after his first. It’s a bit different this time because Peter Parker is now a part of a larger world, one where the idea of the superhero has already been well established and where the world has already been threatened by gods, aliens, an artificial intelligence, sorcerers, and a guy with energy whips. Thus, to focus more on the themes of growing up and taking responsibility, Homecoming scales back on the epic fantasy and instead gives us a high school movie with superheroes.

After being drafted by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to fight for the Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is told that he’s not ready yet to join the superhero team and is sent back to school to focus on his studies. In the meantime Stark encourages Peter to be more of “a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” and assigns Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to look after him. Peter however struggles to balance his school life with his crime-fighting life. His best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) keeps pestering him about his ‘Stark Internship’, his decathlon team, led by Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier), is getting frustrated with his inability to commit to the upcoming championship, and even his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) must be kept in the dark about his alter-ego. Meanwhile Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvager who was driven out of business years ago by Stark Industries, has gone into the arms trafficking business, dealing weapons based on Chitauri technology recovered from the Battle of New York in The Avengers. When he learns of Toomes’ activities, it falls onto Spider-Man to stop whatever it is he has planned.

Holland plays a much younger Peter Parker than either Maguire of Garfield ever played and his youth plays a prominent role. Spider-Man’s arc as a character has always been that he’s a young man learning to grow up and take responsibility, which is exactly what makes him so identifiable and relatable, especially to teenagers. In Homecoming his youth is emphasised in order to set him apart from the Avengers, most notably Tony Stark, who are pros at being superheroes and who understand the dangers and responsibilities of the job far better than Peter does. Although Peter is smart, talented and well intentioned, he’s also just a kid and he possesses all of the liabilities of youth. He is cocky, naïve and is in way over his head. Spider-Man has never just been a superhero fantasy, it is at its core a coming of age story and this movie embraces that by drawing inspiration from the filmography of John Hughes (which is good, but a little on the nose in one scene referencing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Angst, awkwardness and adolescence all come in abundance and the movie does a great job of showcasing those sides of Peter Parker.

The superhero side is also very good, but there is a slight disconnection there. The one thing I never really got from this incarnation of Spider-Man was a sense of what was driving him, a motivation. It’s hinted at in his first scene in Civil War but in this movie it is never elaborated in any meaningful way. Now, I’ve seen the other movies, I’ve read the comics, and I’ve watched some of the cartoon. I know full well what Spider-Man’s motivation is. The problem is that this movie throws us straight in without giving us some kind of foundation on which we can plant our feet. Uncle Ben, the lessons he taught Peter, and the role Peter may or may not have played in his death, we have no idea how relevant these are to this version of Spider-Man because they are never addressed. There is something of a stigma these days against superhero origin stories and not for no reason (we have after all seen two Spider-Man origin movies within ten years of each). I’m not saying that Homecoming had to be origin movie, but the crucial details of the backstory that fundamentally make Peter who he is do have to be addressed, even if it’s only in a couple of sentences. Leaving that out is bad storytelling.

Homecoming however is far from a bad movie. It is engaging, funny, thrilling and just delightful. Not only is Holland terrific as Spider-Man, he is hands down the best Peter Parker in any of the movies. His Peter is nerdy and awkward enough to make him a believable social outcast but also charming and eccentric enough to be likeable. Keaton as the Vulture is spot on and for me is easily the second best villain in the whole MCU after Loki. He is menacing, but also entertaining; villainous, but understandable. In addition, there is a twist with the villain (because there always are these days) that works incredibly well, bringing the conflict between him and Spider-Man to an entirely higher level. There are a couple of action scenes that don’t quite work, such as the climatic fight that takes place almost completely in the dark, but the ones that do work really well. As well as being his usual acrobatic self, this Spider-Man also makes effective use of the gadgets at his disposal such as his iconic web-slingers and a ton of other goodies provided by Stark’s suit. It’s not the best Spider-Man movie ever made but there is a lot to enjoy and a lot to be excited about going forward.

★★★★

Spotlight

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci

Director: Tom McCarthy

Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer


It is tough for me to review a film like Spotlight because, as I look back at it, I’m forced to ask myself whether my feelings towards it were inspired by its subject matter or by the film itself. When a film tackles a controversial subject of this importance it can be tricky to work out whether you really do like the film or if you only think you like it because you feel like you are supposed to. There is no doubt that Spotlight has an important story to tell, the question is whether or not it stands out as a film. When I compared it to some of the year’s other releases I realised that Spotlight is not actually that remarkable in terms of filmmaking. It doesn’t have the energy of Steve Jobs, the creativity of The Big Short or the atmosphere of Bridge of Spies. And yet I got a stronger reaction from watching Spotlight than I did from any of those three films. I think this has less to do with the subject matter though and more to do with the story, characters and dialogue.

The film is set in 2001 and tells the true story of the reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the child molestation scandal. The head of the Spotlight team conducting the investigation is Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), a veteran reporter on friendly terms with some of the most influential Catholics in Boston. The members of his team include Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all of whom are deeply affected by this story for their own personal reasons. Overlooking this investigation is the new Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) and long-time Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). Between them the Spotlight team discover that the instances of child molestation carried out by Catholic priests extends far beyond a few bad apples and start to suspect that the men at the very top could very well be aware of what’s happening and are even enabling it.

Although the directing in this film is not particularly creative or innovative (and certainly not worthy of an Oscar nomination), I think that Spotlight is a showcase of how great writing can make a great film. The construction of the film’s narrative is so methodical and intricate that there isn’t a single faulty step in its telling. Every scene and every conversation that takes place is employed to progress the story and does so fluidly and captivatingly. Even though the subject of the film is complex and challenging, the story itself is straightforward and upfront. The film gets straight to the point and goes exactly where it needs to go. The viewer is able to become invested through the characters as they uncover this conspiracy piece by piece and are all personally affected by what they discover. There is a directness and matter-of-factness to the film’s approach that makes it all feel downright and true and therefore honest. The drama is never overplayed and is never exaggerated. Through smooth pacing and subtlety the film allows its story to play out naturally and every moment of drama that does occur is completely earned.

Spotlight could also very well have the best ensemble of the year. There isn’t an individual that I can single out because the strength of their performances is that they work best as a collective. If I had to pick out a favourite though it would probably have to be Stanley Tucci as the tired yet dedicated lawyer who has seen too many injustices and empty promises in his time. Each character in this film is fully rounded and are all challenged by what they uncover. Robinson is a born-and-bred Boston man who discovers that he didn’t know his city or its people as well as he thought he did. Rezendes is horrified by the corruption of an institution he believed to be good and just. Pfeiffer is deeply affected by the trauma of the victims and the impenitence of the offenders. Carroll is a family man who cannot help but wonder whether he can keep his own children safe. The actors play their roles so authentically and candidly that they completely disappear into their characters.

It is tough to set aside a story’s social relevance and to assess a film like this purely as a film. I know that the film had a profound affect on me. The question is whether this is because I was already worked up by the film’s notorious subject matter or because I was moved by the film’s story. On reflection I think I have to side with the film. As I played it over in my head there was one particular sequence that stuck with me which involved a children’s choir singing ‘Silent Night’. After everything that had come before, that particular scene struck me like a hammer. After all of the corruption, tragedy and depravity that had been uncovered, the film chose to drive it all home by contrasting it with an image of what had been lost in the middle of it all. It was an image of such heartbreaking innocence that I couldn’t help but be moved. Spotlight is such a slow-burner that it captivates you without you even realising it. It is a marvellously written film with an excellent ensemble and an emotional and powerful payoff that is well worth the wait.

★★★★★

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Writers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo


Often when an actor is cast to play an iconic character such as a superhero, it is very difficult for that actor to break away from the role. This is something that Mark Hamill learned when his post-Star Wars career found little success due to his identity being so strongly linked to that of Luke Skywalker. Similarly Bela Lugosi gave such a stellar performance as Dracula that he was forever typecast and cursed to live out the rest of his career playing minor parts in lesser horror films. Michael Keaton suffered the same fate when he left the role of Batman behind in 1992 only for his career to be met with modest success afterwards, an experience that doubtless provided him with a valuable insight into the tortured unhinged psyche of washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson.

Riggan, a role that surely must have been written specially for Keaton, is a former movie star whose career peaked decades earlier when he played the iconic superhero Birdman. Having experienced little success in the years since he left the role behind, he makes a last-ditch effort to save himself from irrelevance, obscurity and mediocrity by writing, directing and starring in a theatrical adaptation of Ray Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This proves to be a tortuous ordeal as he pours everything he has into this production and is faced with family issues, difficult actors, a disdainful critic, and his own deranged mind. His thoughts are constantly at war with one another as he battles with the abusive voice of his alter ego Birdman and his grip on reality loosens as he imagines himself to be a super-heroic figure, performing feats of levitation and telekinesis. Riggan undergoes a psychological breakdown and a lamenting downfall befitting a hero of a Shakespearean tragedy, an appropriate comparison given the inclusion of Macbeth’s soliloquy later on in the film.

Keaton delivers the performance of his career as he impeccably portrays the fanatical personality of Riggan Thomson complete with the erratic mood swings, the conflicting personalities and the desperation of a man at the end of his tether. Riggan finds himself in a despairing state as his ego is constantly undermined by antagonistic forces. There is the abrasive actor whose undercutting criticisms challenge Riggan’s creative vision. There is also the pompous New York Times critic who resents Riggan for his impudence and ignorance. Most demoralising of all is the cruel voice of Birdman whose abuse constantly puts Riggan down and who insists that he is out of his depth and must return to the glory days of Birdman. So extreme is this inner turmoil that the lines between Riggan and Birdman become blurred and one starts to wonder whether the two are even interchangeable.

Iñárritu’s direction complements Riggan’s rapid and irrational mentality as he shoots and edits the film to look like one continuous take, crammed with paranoid shakes of the camera and schizophrenic close-ups. The camera moves haphazardly from room to room and follows character after character as hours or even entire days fly by in a single motion. This is a film that never stops moving and that never allows the audience to feel comfortable. The chaotic and frenzied tone that Iñárritu conveys deftly hides the fact that every scene must have had to be precisely timed and rigorously choreographed in order for them to be properly captured. The inclusion of an original score played mostly on the drums also adds to the hectic tone.

Although Birdman is very much Keaton’s film the supporting cast is also worthy of praise, particularly Edward Norton and Emma Stone (who, perhaps not coincidentally, are also famous for starring in superhero films). Norton plays the brilliant but unstable and hot-blooded method actor Mike who constantly challenges Riggan as a writer, director and actor, and who actively insists on drinking real gin and on being threatened by a more realistic looking gun while on stage in order for the act to “feel real”. Stone plays Riggan’s daughter Sam, a recovering drug addict who resents her father, despite not quite knowing why, and who lashes out because of him. Both actors portray their characters with great intensity and fury while also allowing some humanity to balance out the absurdity. The cast also includes Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend and producer trying to stop everything from falling apart, Naomi Watts as an aspiring actress finally getting her big break on Broadway, Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s discontented girlfriend, Lindsay Duncan as the critic who has set out to destroy Riggan, and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife who perhaps knows him better than he knows himself.

Birdman is a challenging film that raises many questions. How much of what happens takes place in Riggan’s head and how much of it is real? Are Riggan and Birdman separate personalities or are they one and the same? What happens at the end and what does it mean? These questions are never given any explicit answers and perhaps they aren’t supposed to. After all it isn’t called The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance for nothing. Half of the fun is in not knowing. Regardless, Birdman is an immensely creative and compelling film that invites the viewer to not just watch, but rather to experience a story. It is a unique and unusual film that can understandably be daunting or even frustrating for anyone more preferential towards films with traditional narrative structures. Having only seen it once I cannot claim to have completely figured this film out and maybe I never will. However I can claim to have been exceedingly fascinated, mentally stimulated, and thoroughly entertained by this film and I look forward to the prospect of watching it again.

★★★★★