Dumbo 2019 ****


Disney didn’t bother mounting any kinds of awards campaign for Dumbo, arguably the runt of the litter of live action re-enactments of classic animations that dominated the box office of 2019. In the UK, there’s not yet been a chance to view Andrew Bujawski’s Lady and the Tramp, but Tim Burton’s superior Dumbo stands aside from the rest of the pack by dint of revising and remodelling the original rather than just a shot-for-shot remake.

In fact, the only thing wrong with Dumbo is Dumbo himself: the CGI elephant, like most photo-realistic creatures, lacks the charm of the way that Dumbo was originally drawn. Story-wise, there’s more going on that just censoring songs (When I See an Elephant Fly) or situations (Dumbo getting hammered), with strong elements of corporate and business satire via crooked businessmen Vandevere and Remington (Michael Keaton and Alan Arkin), who lock horns as they try and figure out the best way to exploit the flying elephant in the room.

Danny DeVito makes a sympathetic ringmaster, and the moppet kids are fine as these things go; Burton creates a package that’s ideal in terms of putting new wine in old bottles, but also doesn’t let up on the darkness. ‘Everything is going to be like it was before’ offers one character soothingly, but this Dumbo doesn’t coast by on nostalgia. Several close-ups of elephant dung on the sanded floor of the circus hardly lend themselves to warm and fuzzy feelings, while the death of an audience member is lingered on, even down to a follow-up shot of a stretcher being loaded into a coroner’s van.

Given that Dumbo kicks off with children discovering that their father (Colin Farrell) has lost his arm in the war, it’s clear that Burton’s mind was on something more here than flogging toys; the animals may be photorealistic, but the Dreamland amusement park which ends up on fire could only come from Burton’s Gothic imagination, and the same goes for Eva Green’s trapeze vamp. Like Dark Shadows or Big Eyes, Dumbo may not please it’s target audience with it’s feeling for both light and shade, but it provides plenty of evidence of Tim Burton’s genuine acumen and showmanship as a director.

Ultimately, Max Medici’s aphorism feels relevant to Burton’s wrestling act with his studio; ‘Never do anything I tell you without checking with me first.’ With directors and other talent seemingly falling in and out of popular franchise projects, Burton is one of the few who can bend a studio to his vision. Presumably the dismal $350+ million box office take for Dumbo will put a stop to such original thinking in future family films. But Tim Burton’s failure brings back memories of the 1980’s, when Disney couldn’t get arrested, and films like The Black Cauldron, Tron, Dragonslayer and Something Wicked This Way Comes went rapidly down the tubes. In retrospect, these failures are often better than most successes, and there’s far more of interest in Tim Burton’s Dumbo than The Lion King and Aladdin put together.

Cujo 1983 ****


What’s so good about Stephen King’s killer dog movie? In Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre, the author writes persuasively about the 1979 version of The Amityville Horror, and a scene in which a sum of money goes missing from the Lutz family. He writes about how, rather than the flies and the axe attacks, it’s the financial horror that the Lutz family experience that really grounds the film, and King’s own ability to ground a horror conceit in domestic purgatory is very much to the fore in the film of Cujo.

Cujo is, famously, the killer dog featured here, but there’s no much Cujo in the first half of Lewis Teague’s film, bar an intro which shows the mutt being bit on the nose by a rabid bat. Instead, Teague’s film gets into the minutiae of one particular cell of the Castle Rock organism; Donna (Dee Wallace) has decanted from New York, her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) who is struggling with an advertising account gone rogue. Meanwhile her lover Steve (Christopher Kemp) beats her husband at tennis, runs down the street shirtless and doesn’t take it well when Donna dumps him.

If that’s not enough, we then get into Donna and Vic’s car trouble, and their attempts to get their shonky Ford Pinto into shape, which involve mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) and his family. All of these characters are extremely well described, and as a film, Cujo generates a heap of suspense before working out exactly how Donna’s life is going to fall apart. If there’s not much Cujo in the first half, the second half is all Cujo, and Donna and her son are trapped agonisingly in the confines of the Pinto while the rabid dog rampages outside.

If audiences were perhaps overwhelmed by the intensity of the latter stages of the story, the not-quite-terrifying dog make-up, or the less than satisfying ending, the majority of Teague’s film is way ahead of its time, respecting King’s characters and setting, while doubling down on intensity. Before he became a notable directorial talent, Jan De Bont does a great job with the look of the film, making something iconic of Donna’s Pinto in the abandoned yard and predating his excellent work on Die Hard amongst other films.

The name Cujo is still often bandied around when naughty dogs are mentioned, and Cujo the movie is probably ripe for a CGI-heavy remake; if anyone goes down that road, it would be ideal if they constructed the long, careful, patient build-up Teague manages here. Cujo the dog seems to feed off Castle Rock’s bad energy, and there’s far more to King’s story than just a woman in peril.

White Dog 1981 ***

white dog

A late entry in Samuel Fuller’s resume, White Dog is a film about racism that doesn’t shirk tricky issues; questions of nature versus nurture are raised and not easily dismissed. Based on a book by Romain Gray, a French writer who once challenged Clint Eastwood to a duel (Eastwood declined), this project was adapted by Fuller and Curtis Hanson with fairly explosive results. White Dog is the story of a black dog trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) who tries to retrain a stray dog that has been trained to attack black people. Whether it’s possible for the animal to overcome it’s racially-based training or not, Fuller advances a strong metaphor for the dog representing racial hatred, and Keys obsessively trying to break down ingrained programming. For various reasons, White Dog was barely seen on release, and a welcome return on streaming should allow cineastes the chance to enjoy the photography of Bruce Surtees and the score by Ennio Morricone. White Dog has begun to amass some critical momentum as an controversial and original take on a hot subject, and hopefully it’s availability on streaming for the price of a cup of coffee may lead it to the audience it deserved but didn’t get back in 1981. Kirsty McNichol and Burl Ives provide strong support.

Pet Sematary 2019 ***


Nostalgia isn’t always what it used to be; one of Stephen King’s best books made for a pretty average film in 1989, and this 2019 revision actually improves on the original without ever approaching the heights of the text. Jason Clarke brings his signature intensity to Louis Creed, a doctor who moves with his wife and children to idyllic Maine, only to find that there’s a highway at the bottom of the garden where heavy trucks pass by. This scenario is laced with dread; no matter how hard Creed has worked, no matter how stable the relationships his life is built upon, death, sudden and decisive, lies only a few baby steps away from his house, and nothing he can do will avert it. Of course, when tragedy strikes, there’s an ancient burial ground around which offers him a chance at apparent salvation, but only delivers a brief respite before something cruel comes down the pike. Pet Sematary’s narrative body-swerves the climax or the original book and film, apparently with King’s blessing, and puts something more cinematic in it’s place. John Lithgow plays a more grounded version of Fred Gwynne’s old codger who knows all the secrets, and plot-holes aside, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer’s film manages to deliver the nasty thrills that the dark story demands.

Kedi 2017 ****

Cats, cats, cats…arguably the greatest gift the internet brought was non-stop cat coverage. The big screen has been slow to see the same potential, but Cedya Torun’s return to his Turkish homeland in Istanbul is a wonderful showcase for stars who have no interest in being in a film. Kedi follows a number of diverse moggies through their daily routines in the city. As in Venice, cats seem to have a tight grip on the underworld, and Torun doesn’t bother with any anthropomorphic analysis or talking heads, other than a few stories about how cats and people get along. One lively character sits outside a restaurant, and seems to have trained the proprietors to bring him his food at a pre-arranged signal; such delightful details make Kedi and charming, original documentary for when a story just seems like too much bother.

Beasts: Special Offer 1976

Another worthwhile entry in Nigel Kneale’s ITV series from 1976, Special Offer is a very odd tale of telekinesis that seems to reflect on a similar subject matter to Stephen King’s Carrie, but instead of the specific humiliations of a prom and pig’s blood, the ordinary everyday humiliation of working on the checkout of a British supermarket creates a similar result. Pauline Quirke plays Noreen Beale, a naïve and inexperienced girl who starts work on the tills in a store operated by Mr Grimley (Geoffrey Bateman). She’s got a secret love for him that’s unrequited, and soon items are breaking, shelves are clearing themselves and Noreen believes a strange creature is responsible. Kneale isn’t afraid of being silly, but he’s also averse to cliché, and Special Offer never quite settles on a tone, making the climax all the more nightmarish. There’s a keen eye for the unfair male dominance of the working environment, and also the kind of satire of capitalism that marks Kneale’s work, even in his abortive screenplay for Halloween III; Season of the Witch.

Beasts: Buddyboy 1976

Nigel Kneale’s interest in science-fiction topics is mixed with genuine social critique and a pessimistic view of human nature; this entry in his Beasts tv show from 1976 doesn’t quite fuse these elements together, but it’s a wild ride all the same. A young Martin Sham, all curly hair and mouth, is a small-time entrepreneur and gangster who hopes to turn a high-street dolphinarium (posters identify it as being called Finnyland) into a sex club and cinema; presumably Kneale saw this as a sign of the times, but it’s hard to take seriously the notion that in 1976 Britain’s high street dolphinariums were falling into nefarious hands. The previous owner (Wolfe Morris) is haunted by the ghostly presence of a dolphin (Buddyboy) which he abused, and Lucy (Pamela Moisewitsch) seems to have an affinity with the dead creature. The punch-line is bleak and non-visual, but Buddyboy is a real curio because of the decent acting from Shaw, and the surreal sense of dislocation. While it sounds ridiculous, Buddyboy is not the kind of story that you’ll ever forget.

A Boy and His Dog 1975 ***


Adapted from a sci-fi novel by Harlan Ellison, A Boy and his Dog is an unusually imaginative sci-fi movie from 1975. Actor briefly turned director LQ Jones also wrote the screenplay with Alvy Moore; the story takes place in an apocalyptic wasterland and concerns Vic (Don Johnson) who traverses the remains of planet earth with his telepathic dog Blood (Tiger, voiced by Tim McIntyre). Vic is lured into an underground bunker where there are plans to harness his virility for pre-creational purposes, and A Boy And His Dog sticks to its independent guns by having the survival of the human race low on Vic’s priorities. With dialogue taken often verbatim from Ellison’s novel, A Boy and His Dog is a smart antidote to big-budget sci-fi; it makes its points with satirical verve.




Mousehunt 1997 ***


Gore Verbinkski’s first features shows all the visual energy and gift of visual comedy that featured in the Pirates of The Caribbean movies, but without the lame-love interest. Instead there’s a stream of high quality slapstick for kids of all ages; Nathan Lane and Lee Evans play Ernie and Lars Smuntz, who are hoping to restore an ancient mansion but haven’t reckoned with the sitting tenant; a mouse who is unwilling to move out. Mousetraps, cats and eventually a tough professional exterminator (a brilliant cameo from Christopher Walken) are all enlisted, and Mousehunt has enormous fun with the comic possibilities in this breezy Dreamworks production; any film with such an extended mouse-down-the-trousers gag deserves points for trying.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted 2012 ****


No prior knowledge of the Madagascar films is required to enjoy the third and best instalment; co-written by Noah Baurmbach, it’s a genial romp that finds the escaped zoo animals loose in Europe and infiltrating a circus for cover. Gia (Jessica Chastain) and Vitaly (Brian Cranston) run the operation, and there’s a choice dilemma for Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) and his gang; to stay with the circus where they are regarded as an inspiration, or admit that they’re losers on the run. The be-all-you-can-be message is exemplified by a dazzling montage set to Katy Perry’s Firefly, a sequence that elevates Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon’s film to high art. And the regular appearances of a chimp in a Louis X IV wig are cause for hilarity in themselves; not quite on message with the rest of the gang, this baroque figure is the trickster incarnate.