The summer movie season is going to kick off in about a month with the late-April release of “Avengers: Endgame,” leading to a bombastic movie season in which every imaginable trick in the book will be used to part viewers from their money and then wow them for two hours without taxing their brains. As such, I’m going to offer three brief reviews here: first, about “Dumbo” itself, then a look at the heartfelt and character-driven dramedy “Gloria Bell.” Finally we’ll have a glance at “Hotel Mumbai,” which takes a harrowing and potentially dangerous look back at the Islamist terror attacks on a Mumbai luxury hotel in 2008.
Between the three, viewers will find movies that are well-made and interesting but have vastly different agendas.
First, “Dumbo” is such an enchanting wonder that there’s not much to say about it without spoiling the magic of director Tim Burton’s most engaging film in many years. Based on the 1941 classic cartoon that was amazingly just 64 minutes long, the new “Dumbo” continues Disney’s recent trend of turning its beloved animated films into live-action extravaganzas — and like 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast,” this is an outright winner.
The film tells the tale of a baby elephant that was born with giant ears that enable him to fly, and becomes a star in a ragtag traveling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). In this extended live-action spectacle, 48 minutes of additional story are brought to life as a PT Barnum-style showman named V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) tries to buy Dumbo for his new Dreamland theme park in the big city. Are his intentions nefarious?
If you can’t figure that out, you’ve never seen a Disney children’s movie. But “Dumbo” is loads of fun regardless, with Keaton and DeVito reteaming with Burton and clearly having a blast long after their star turns in “Beetlejuice,” “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” respectively. Colin Farrell is also excellent as Holt Farrier, a widowed father who returns from World War I missing an arm and trying to reconnect with his young children amid the Medici circus that he was a star in prior to the war.
Sure, the decision by Disney to make live or CGI versions of animated classics like this, “Beauty” and “Jungle Book” (with a live-action “Aladdin” and CGI “Lion King” still to come later this year) may be driven by the desire to have slam-dunk hits. But I give the studio much credit for hiring innovative filmmakers and putting top-notch masters in charge of everything from costumes to effects to the scores. These are films that so far manage to be both commodities and top-notch reflections of populist film at its best.
Completely on the opposite end of the spectacle spectrum is “Gloria Bell,” which is a low-key slice of life look at the life of the titular 50-year-old woman (Julianne Moore) as she drifts through the LA nightclub scene dancing to disco classics and picking up random guys. Her kids are now out of the house and her husband (Brad Garrett) is long remarried, so she’s facing the prospect of life alone when she suddenly is approached by a seemingly sweet and newly divorced man named Arnold (John Turturro). Soon she finds herself in the middle of an affair that seems like it has potential but shows some very unusual cracks.
“Bell” is the kind of film that rests squarely on the shoulders of its star, and Moore delivers a superb portrait of the kind of person who exists anonymously throughout the LA singles scene. As she gains confidence from her newfound love, it’s a joy to see Moore bring Gloria to life, but as the saying goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” — and Gloria’s even more surprising when she is crossed.
This is the kind of movie that is often overlooked outside of the end-of-year Oscar season, which makes it even more of a gem now. But it’s worth the search for those who appreciate a too-rare sense of humanity in their films, and will likely find Moore nominated for an Oscar at the end of the year.
Finally, “Hotel Mumbai” tries to apply the principle of “Never Forget” that many associate with the 9/11 terror attacks, to the attacks on the luxurious Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India in 2008. The film follows a team of 10 young Pakistani terrorists as they launch a frenzy of hellish assaults across the city to confuse and tie up the police before focusing on their main target and slaughtering as many VIP guests from the West as possible.
The film also follows the POV of a heroic hotel worker named Arjun (Dev Patel), who winds up leading rescue and escape efforts for the guests despite being forced to wear too-tight shoes. At the same time, an American husband and father named David (Armie Hammer) insists on finding his baby and nanny no matter what, and a small team of brave police begin a daring take-down mission to save the day.
Director Anthony Maras makes an impressive feature-film debut here after helming just three prior shorts, and manages to make the action work on a visceral, “Die Hard” level as hundreds of guests try to escape the besieged building. But since it’s known that many innocents died in the assault, any sense of fun is gone, and the film’s unrelentingly evil portrait of the young Muslims with no redeeming characters from that faith makes it feel irresponsible and fearmongering in the wake of the horrific anti-Islamic terror attacks in New Zealand.
Here’s hoping that future filmmakers addressing tragedies seek to find the uplifting side of these events as well, rather than dragging viewers back down the drain of hatred. n
“Dumbo” : A
“Gloria Bell”: B
“Hotel Mumbai”: C