Happy Thanksgiving ~ Planes, Trains and Automobiles


Note: This review originally ran November 23, 2017

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man must struggle to travel home for Thanksgiving with an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman his only companion.

Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon, Ben Stein, Edie McClurg

Director: John Hughes

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

Original Release Date: November 25, 1987

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Here’s a movie I’m really, truly thankful for.  30 years (!!!) after its original release, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a gift that has kept on giving to countless people throughout the year but especially at Thanksgiving.  Writing this review in 2017 as I’m about to hit the road to celebrate the holiday with family, I knew I had to get my annual viewing of this one in a day before the big Turkey Day. Revisiting this one is like meeting up with an old friend who tells the same jokes but still delivers them with a master’s precision.

It’s two days before Thanksgiving and marketing exec Neal Page (Steven Martin, Parenthood) is rushing to catch an early flight home to Chicago to be with his family for the holiday.  If only he could make it to the airport.  In mid-day NYC rush hour traffic, he races for a cab with another big shot (Kevin Bacon in a cameo done as a favor to John Hughes right before they made She’s Having a Baby together), gets his cab stolen out from under him by an unseen man toting a large trunk with him, and arrives at the terminal to find his flight delayed.  That’s where he meets Del Griffith (John Candy, Splash), a portly shower ring salesman that turns out to be the cab thief.  When their plane is diverted to Kansas on account of the weather, Neal and Del become unlikely travel mates as they work together to get back to their families.

Hughes was on a real roll at this point, having just come off of directing back to back to back to back hits that have become seminal favorites (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) not to mention writing National Lampoon’s Vacation, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful.  This was his first movie to deal with real adults and it’s a marvelous pairing of a perfectly assembled cast with Hughes’ hilarious (if episodic) script.  There’s not a single boring moment in the movie, pretty remarkable considering how hard it is to sustain comedy for any length of time, let alone 92 minutes.

The movie is filled with classic scenes.  Martin and Candy waking up in their small hotel bed in an awkward embrace, Martin’s hysterically foul-mouthed run-in with a car rental agent (Edie McClurg, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), Candy driving cross-country and accidentally getting both of his arms stuck behind him while Martin sleeps, the list goes on.  Hughes is smart enough to have Del be the catalyst for a joke but not make him the ultimate target, to do that would be too cruel to be funny and that’s not what he’s interested in.

Martin is great as the tightly wound Neal who alternates between hating the schlubby Del and hating himself for the way he treats him.  It’s not hard to see why Neal gets so frustrated, either, because Del does himself no favors.  He’s a slob, he takes all the air out of any room he’s in, he doesn’t recognize normal social signals, and he has an uncanny way of destroying anything he touches.  Still, in Candy’s brilliant hands he’s a lovable dude and by the time the movie reaches its surprisingly emotional zenith, you’ll probably be like me and wiping tears away.  Oh yeah, I cry every time I watch the movie…I know I will and have accepted it at this point.

On a personal note, I can’t watch this movie without remembering my late father’s howling laugh when I first saw it.  I can still hear him roaring at Candy’s cluelessness and Martin’s slow-burn reactions.  This was a family favorite of ours and while my dad isn’t here to watch it with me, I think of him constantly when I put it on.  I watch a lot of movies and don’t always take the time to go back and rewatch many films…but there are exceptions and Planes, Trains and Automobiles is certainly one of them.

Movie Review ~ Queen & Slim


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple’s first date takes an unexpected turn when a police officer pulls them over.

Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloë Sevigny, Indya Moore, Bokeem Woodbine, Sturgill Simpson, Flea, Benito Martinez

Director: Melina Matsoukas

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: What most audiences don’t know is that by the time they see a film on opening weekend in a large multiplex with reclining seats and a big bucket of popcorn, the movie has been through a number of committees, approvals, screenings, edits, and adjustments.  From studio heads to a soccer mom recruited in the parking lot at a 7-11, someone has watched this movie already and had some sort of say in the final cut.  This is done to maximize the appeal in order to make the most money, hopefully in the first few weeks before something newer comes out to steal its thunder.  It’s filmmaking by committee and it’s a disappointing way to get things done – that’s why you may get the feeling of a certain staleness lately when you head to the theater.

Then there are the rare directors/producers that get “final cut” written into their contracts, making them the last word when it comes to how the movie will turn out.  If the film is a bomb, the buck stops with the director and the same goes if it’s an out-of-left-field success.  I was surprised and totally delighted to learn the filmmakers behind Queen & Slim had negotiated this clause with Universal Studios and it makes sense why they pushed for it.  The story being told is one that needed no outside tinkering or interference, no focus groups or market strategies…because sadly you can imagine opening up a paper tomorrow and reading about it happening in real life.

Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Widows) has finally convinced Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith, The Neon Demon) to go out with him.  He works retail and she’s a lawyer that defends murders. He’s easy-going and passive, she likes restaurants to get her order right the first time.  Slim’s driving her home from their pleasant but fireworks-free first date when they are pulled over by a Cleveland police officer.  All Slim wants to do is take the ticket and go but the officer is clearly looking to make something more stick based on vague suspicion.  Within seconds the situation has escalated, the officer is shot with his own gun, and the young couple flees into the night.

So begins a cross-country crime drama that’s equal parts Bonnie & Clyde, Thelma & Louise, and Badlands but is delivered clearly in its own voice.  That voice comes from Emmy-winner Lena Waithe who came up with the story with author James Frey and has written a script that doesn’t pander to audiences.  Waithe has created two distinct main characters that represent differing points of view, not just simple devil’s advocate opposites.  Flipping gender roles on its head, Queen is the more aggressive and dominant partner throughout, often acting on impulse instead of taking time to consider the emotional consequences of actions.  Slim is the more sensitive of the two, holding off the shock of what he’s done by focusing on the growing feelings he has for Queen.

As they make their way from the Midwest down South, they encounter folks who have seen the dashcam video of their crime that has gone viral and want to offer solace as well as people who feel they are only contributing to the police violence against people of color.  Waithe isn’t afraid to introduce players that challenge her titular characters strongly because it shows all sides to the discussion…and allows the discussion to be had in the first place.  There’s nothing one-sided in Queen & Slim, which gives it greater distinction from similar “issue” movies that come with a clear angle and objective.  Waithe is obviously troubled by what is happening in the world and has used the film medium to express her frustration but it’s communicated in such a sophisticated way that you are compelled to lean forward in your seat and engage.

Directed by Melina Matsoukas, she brings her excellent eye from the music world (she’s behind Beyonce’s Formation video) but thankfully doesn’t fashion her feature debut as rapid fire head-spinner.  This is a finely crafted movie, conscious of how it develops and what path it turns down.  A trip to see Queen’s war vet uncle (Bokeem Woodbine, Overlord) living in New Orleans with a houseful of barely clothed ladies could have been a real low point but Matsoukas has paced it so well and Waithe provided such defined personalities for the women we meet that it doesn’t feel as exploitative as it could have been.  Only the drab taupe-ness of a visit with a husband and wife played by Flea (Boy Erased) and Chloë Sevigny (The Dead Don’t Die) is a bit of a yawn.  Likely the point, but the mundane parallel of this visit compared to their New Orleans layover is etched with fairly broad strokes.

It makes little difference who else we meet, though, because Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are in almost every scene and they are fantastic.  Kaluuya continues to show his strength at disappearing into any role he takes on, easily stepping into the soft-spoken Slim and your heart breaks watching him see his plans for the future fall apart with each setback they encounter along the way.  He’s got great chemistry with Turner-Smith and it’s her you’ll want to keep your eyes on because it’s a star-making performance if ever there was one.  Though she’s been in several movies already, this is her highest profile role to date and she knocks it out of the park.  As Queen, she’s often asked to be front and center, exposing herself (literally) in the most vulnerable of ways.  The icy front she has at the beginning isn’t totally an act and the reasons behind her emotions are made clear not just by Waithe’s late-breaking exposition but in Turner-Smith’s carefully constructed work.

It was an interesting experience to watch Queen & Slim with a packed house filled with responsive audience members.  I was surprised at how many of them weren’t on the side of our lead characters and it was an eye (and ear) opening experience to have running commentaries during the movie. Normally I would get frustrated at the talking while a film was going on but here it was helpful because it gave me greater insight into how another person was interpreting the film from a perspective I could never truly understand.  What’s happening with police violence is frightening and the growing number of deaths in the black community at the hands of police needs to be resolved.  Queen & Slim won’t stop it but it introduces necessary conversations for audiences as take-aways – my hope is that people see the movie and do something, anything, afterward in response.

Movie Review ~ Waves


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Traces the journey of a suburban African-American family as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss.

Stars: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Clifton Collins Jr.

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: There’s a part of every movie going experience that I dread the most.  No, it’s not battling traffic to get to the theater or praying the person next to me isn’t a talker/texter/cruncher.  It’s not even a fear of being disappointed by a highly anticipated title I’ve been counting down the days to or hoping the seat I’m going to be occupying will allow me to cross my legs (I’m tall and these tree trunks need to be stretched!) that gives my brow a slight bead of sweat.  It’s the thought of being asked immediately by my neighbor when the credits roll “What did you think?” or worse, being asked to write it down.  I totally understand these quick takes are necessary for feedback and want to do my best to provide an honest answer but I usually need time to process what I’m feeling just a tad longer.  Often, my responses are pretty dumb (no, really) and I wind up feeling differently the more I ponder.

Take Waves, for instance.  After 135 minutes of fairly intense drama, my first reaction wasn’t entirely positive.  Knowing the film had strong buzz from its festival circuit debut coming in to the screening gave me a framework for what I was going to see but the initial response was in answer to the emotion I felt at the experience and not the movie.  Does that make sense?  The more I thought about the film and it’s complex look at a seemingly picture perfect family that begins to break down the less personal emotion I attached to it and the more critical analysis I was able to apply.  I still can look at the film for how it made it feel but the overall consensus is now based on more than that hot take in the moment.

Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce) is a Florida teenager in the middle of a successful senior year.  He’s popular, a good student, he’s in love with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and he’s a star athlete.  The achievements haven’t come without hard work and we see how much he’s pushed by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown, Frozen II) to train and stay on task. Stepmother Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry, The House with a Clock in Its Walls) senses he may be taking on too much but doesn’t want to get in between father and son, and it doesn’t appear that his quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell, Escape Room) pays much attention to the comings and goings of her more outgoing brother.  Life for this family goes on without much disruption — everyone stays in their own lane.

An injury that threatens to derail his plans for the future is the first fissure in Tyler’s picture perfect life but it won’t be the last.  A physical set-back becomes the least troubling bit of business for the young man as what seemed to be a solid groundwork turns out to have been constructed on something entirely more delicate.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults takes Tyler down a believably troubled path of self-destruction that’s hard to watch, mainly because of how quickly it all happens.  From one issue springs two more, which open up old wounds that never truly healed.  What starts as a fall from grace for Tyler has a ripple effect for the entire Williams family and it leads to a devastating turn of events that changes all of their lives forever.

And that’s only half of the movie.

Around the midway point, Shults changes the protagonist to Emily to track her high school experience after the events that have already transpired, and it feels like an entirely different film all together.  Where the preceding hour was a vibrant mélange of a world constantly in motion that barely took a breath, the brakes have now been slammed and we’re slowly examining the aftermath of a tragedy with the people often left with more questions than answers.  Using Emily as a focal point for intuiting the grief that remains after a loss, Shults eschews making her a social pariah in her school but instead quickly gives her a confidant in Luke (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back) a socially awkward boy in her class that knows her story and likes her anyway, which comes as a surprise.

As their relationship deepens and becomes something more mature, Emily begins to see the difference between a partnership that is working and one that isn’t.  That’s how a subplot with Ronald and Catherine is introduced, giving Brown and Goldsberry a bit more to work with than they had earlier in the film.  It’s here where Shults starts to veer into overly familiar territory with the couple being written a little broadly and making discoveries that are expected and overly dramatized.  When Shults sticks with Tyler in the first hour and Emily and Luke in the second the real authenticity is found and from there comes powerful moments that will resonate with anyone wishing they had spoken up sooner or intervened on someone’s behalf earlier.

Leaving the screening of Waves I originally found myself favoring the first half because it was the more tangible piece, the easier and more straight-forward narrative to grab onto.  As he did earlier in the year with the underseen Luce, Harrison is an undeniable force onscreen and he’s someone you want to know more about, even if you already know you won’t ever truly figure them out.  The more I sat with the movie, though, I couldn’t get that second section out of my mind.  It’s not as easy to interpret and it goes slack far more than it should, but when it gets in its groove there’s some riveting stuff going on, providing Russell with a handful of excellent scenes that she often plays solo.  I’m not sure if it was Shults intention to make any scene featuring adults feel intrusive but they do, I kept wishing for less of Goldsberry (who is otherwise strong) and Brown (who pushes the dramatics too much) and more with the honesty of their children.

Released by the rising indie distributor A24, Waves fits perfectly into their model of championing burgeoning filmmakers like Shults and for his third high profiled film he’s shown continued advancement in storytelling and technique.  By and large, Waves finds Shults navigating new territory and even the small diversions into oft-traveled waters don’t take away from the lingering bit of sadness that follows you out of the theater. It’s also quite well made, another Shults trademark.  The cinematography and ever-present score are nigh-hypnotic and the performances from Harrison and Russell fuel the kinetic energy that keeps Waves riding high.

See, I just needed a little more time and then I could come up with something a little more thoughtful.  My apologies to my patient screening reps 🙂

Movie Review ~ Knives Out

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.

Stars: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon, Ana de Armas, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, K Callan, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson, Raúl Castillo

Director: Rian Johnson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Readers, there’s a mystery to solve and I need your help finding the solution.  Who killed the whodunit?  The suspects are as follows.  Studio execs that didn’t see the value in continuing to produce mid-range budgeted films that would often make their money back but didn’t have franchise possibilities.  Screenwriters that grew lazy with their material and started to rehash well-worn plots that didn’t keep viewers guessing as much as it did counting down the minutes until the inevitable twist was introduced.  Audiences that stayed away, preferring their trips to the theater be reserved for spectacles of populist entertainment.  The death was slow but not unexpected, with the last gasp occurring in the dead of a summer’s night in the mid 2000s.

A life-long fan of mysteries, I’ve been starving for an old-fashioned whodunit, the kind of jigsaw puzzle of a movie that wasn’t just about unmasking a teen slasher but doing some detective work to get answers.  It’s probably why I welcomed 2018’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express with an extra warm hug (more than most critics) and why I was eagerly anticipating the release of writer/director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.  Here was the pre-Thanksgiving feast I’d been waiting for and if the early previews delivered on its promise, there was a distinct possibility it could lead to more of its kind in the future.  Boasting a star-studded cast, cheeky humor, and a solid but not entirely complex enigma at its core, Knives Out is decidedly entertaining but curiously lacking in connection.

You’re in a spoiler-free zone so read on with confidence knowing nothing not already presented in the trailers will be discussed. 

Famed mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World) has been found dead the morning after his birthday party where his entire family was in attendance.  Originally ruling the death a suicide, the police have gathered the family for another round of questioning when an anonymous tip attracts the attention of famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, Skyfall).  One by one, every family member recounts their memory of the last night they saw Harlan alive, each producing a slightly different take on the evening.  Only Harlan’s young attendant/nurse Marta (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049) seems to be able to speak the truth, but then again she has a physical aversion to lying that causes her to…well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

The first forty five minutes of Knives Out is occupied with Blanc and Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield, The Girl in the Spider’s Web) getting to know the family better, giving us a chance to see their internal dynamics as well.  Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween) is a self-made businesswoman married to loafer Richard (Don Johnson, Paradise) and their charming but churlish son Ransom (Chris Evans, Avengers: Endgame) is the clear black sheep of the family.  Running his father’s publishing house is Walt (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and he grows frustrated with his dad’s refusal to take advantage of the profitable endeavors he has been proposing.  Married to a third sibling that passed away, Joni (Toni Collette, Krampus) and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford, Love, Simon) are kept close even if behind closed doors they aren’t truly considered family.  Then there is Harlan’s mother (K. Callan, American Gigolo), a near silent crone that’s always watching and definitely always listening.

That’s a lot of people to juggle, and I haven’t even discussed a few extra bodies, but by some miracle Johnson’s script manages to make time for all of them.  Still, it never quite feels like enough.  Viewers will be surprised how little certain stars are participatory as the movie unfolds.  Sure, they have an impact on the plot and get moments to shine but with an ensemble this large it’s natural to miss out on featuring everyone all the time.  Thankfully, Johnson (Looper) learned a thing or two from his time on Star Wars: The Last Jedi and knows how to pepper the movie with spikes of energy if the pacing is starting to drop off.  Each time the plot seemed to be hitting a bit of a wall, it pivoted in some tiny way to keep you off kilter.  I would have liked there to a bit more, ultimately, to this family.  The way it’s scripted, they are slightly walking jokes waiting for a set-up and punchline.

As for the mystery of what happened to Harlan Thrombey, well I wouldn’t dream of giving that away.  What I will say is that I appreciated Johnson didn’t cheat when all was revealed.  Having seen enough of these movies over the years I can easily start to piece together the clues and so when I saw them pop up I started to place the important pieces to one side.  When it was time to step back and see the big picture, it was nice to see it all fit together…and not precisely in the way I thought it was going to.  The performances and cinematography are key to pulling this kind of sleight-of-hand off more than anything and Johnson’s cast of experienced professionals all are more than up to the challenge.

The biggest take away I have for you is this: Knives Out is a lot of fun.  In a movie-going era where so many films that get released are dependent on existing intellectual property, it’s a welcome relief that a studio like Lionsgate went the extra mile with this and supported Johnson in his endeavor to try something old but in a modern way.  It’s a little light, if I’m being honest, and I’m not sure what a second viewing will be like.  I know I do want to see it again and that’s saying something.  It’s supposed to snow this Thanksgiving weekend where I am in the Midwest and I can’t think of a better way to spend a gloomy snow day than in a warm theater watching a movie like this play out — the community experience for this one should be fun.

Movie Review ~ Lady and the Tramp (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: American Cocker Spaniel named Lady lives with an upper-middle-class family and meets a mongrel known as the Tramp on the streets. They embark on a romantic journey and eventually fall in love.

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Thomas Mann, Kiersey Clemons, Ashley Jensen, Benedict Wong, Sam Elliott, Janelle Monáe, Yvette Nicole Brown, Adrian Martinez, Arturo Castro, F. Murrary Abraham

Director: Charlie Bean

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Waking up on November 12 reminded me of one of those 80s John Hughes movies where the lead character lazily opens their eyes from slumber, blinks a few times, yawns, and then decides a few more minutes of sleep won’t do them any harm.  Then, with a jolt, their eyes snap open and they bolt upright because they’ve Just Remembered Something Important Is Happening Today.  It was on this Tuesday that I found myself acting out these same emotions/motions when I was reminded that the new streaming service Disney+ was launching and with it, a whole catalog of Disney titles and new original programming.  Long in the planning and constantly in the headlines leading up to its induction, this was a big deal and while I was definitely interested in the new movies and series, I was just eager to have easy access to titles that were harder to come by (Flight of the Navigator anyone?  Anyone?) and poured over the catalog with reckless abandon.

There was a new title I made sure to position near the top of my queue and it was the movie Disney+ had been showcasing as a big selling point for subscribing early to their service.  This would be the only place you could see the film as it hadn’t premiered first in a theater so if you wanted to watch, you had to sign up.  Originally conceived as a theatrical release, the live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp was refashioned as a cornerstone of the new Disney+ service and it largely succeeds on this smaller scale where the stakes aren’t quite as high.  Had it been, ahem, unleashed in cinemas it would likely have been held to more scrutiny from finicky nitpicks but it’s easy to slough off concerns when watching from the comfort of your own home.

Until I started doing some prep for this review, I never knew that Disney’s original 1955 animated film was based on a story first featured in a 1943 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine.  Though that classic film has never been too overplayed in my household, I do have several fond memories of it throughout the years but didn’t hold it so precious in my heart that the thought of a live-action remake made me recoil.  What did give me pause was the thought of another live-action remake in 2019 after the tepid receptions of Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King.  I wasn’t sure I could take another talking animal movie, especially when the bigger budgeted films failed to convince me the technology supported all the furry yapping.

At the turn of the century, young couple Jim Dear (Thomas Mann, Them That Follow) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons, Antebellum) welcome a charming Cocker Spaniel they name Lady into their home.  Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson, Creed) lives a life of luxury, slightly spoiled but not sour.  When not with her family, she visits with neighborhood canines Trusty (Sam Elliott, A Star is Born) and Jock (Ashley Jensen, The Pirates! Band of Misfits), sniffs out a corner of the elegantly trimmed back yard, or chases away a pesky rat that’s been hanging around her house.  In another part of town, mutt Tramp (Justin Theroux, Bumblebee) scrounges for scraps and avoids a determined dogcatcher (Adrian Martinez, Office Christmas Party) who is always in pursuit of any unlicensed animal.

When her young owners start a family and their new baby takes focus away from her, Lady begins to act out, not understanding why she’s the attention she once had is going in a newer, smaller, direction.  By the time Aunt Sarah (Yvette Nicole Brown, Avengers: Endgame) has brought her swaggering, troublemaking cats over for an afternoon that goes horribly wrong, Lady finds herself on the run and falls in with Tramp who takes her under his mangy paw.  Together, they embark on an adventure through town that opens Lady’s eyes to a world outside her block and brings the mismatched dogs closer together.  How long can this pampered dog and streetwise tail-wagger keep away from the dogcatcher, though, and what will happen to Tramp when Lady has to return home?

For what it’s worth, Lady and the Tramp is no dog and is often a downright delight.  Yes, the movie is schmaltzy in all the old-fashioned ways but so is the original film.  You can’t tell me you won’t watch the famous “Bella Notte” sequence (sung by Arturo Castro, Semper Fi and F. Murrary Abraham, The Grand Budapest Hotel) where the dogs share an Italian dinner under the stars and not get a little choked up out of nothing but happiness.  Director Charlie Bean (The Lego Batman Movie) works wonders with the largely CGI dogs to make you think they’re living and breathing hounds and even if the effect doesn’t always gel and the talking mouths look a tad creepy, the end result worked for me.  Though smaller in budget, I was surprised at how good the movie looked.  It’s 1909 setting was handsomely recreated and I appreciate the timeline wasn’t modernized, it helped keep things simple and focused squarely on our characters.

Creepy talking mouths aside, the voice acting in the movie is quite pleasant.  Theroux and Thompson bring a warmth to their roles, never making Tramp too sly or Lady too snooty.  They balance well with the supporting cast featuring Elliott matched with a dog that looks frighteningly like the actor himself as well as singer Janelle Monáe (Harriet) strutting around as a pound puppy who tells Lady all she needs to know about Tramp.  As for the human actors, I didn’t quite get why the screenplay had the dogcatcher pursuing the clever canine as if locked in a Javert/Valjean epic hunt but I suppose it all adds that extra oomph to an emotional resonant finale.

For the first movie Disney+ had waiting for viewers out of the gate, I’d say Lady and the Tramp scored as a a fine inaugural outing.  It’s about 10-15 minutes too long by my estimation and some trimming would have made the movie an easier sit for younger kids (and this older kid, too) but it’s filled with enough eye-catching moments to keep that interest going longer than you’d expect.  This remake has wisely done away with the outdated cultural stereotypes of Aunt Sarah’s cats, changing their breed and giving them a new song.  That’s going to please some and anger others.  Those upset are free to watch the original film, which is also available to add to your watchlist 🙂 With more live-action remakes heading our way and other feature films planned, I’m looking forward to seeing what quality future direct-to-Disney+ will be like.

Movie Review ~ A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A cynical journalist begrudgingly accepts an assignment to write a profile piece on the beloved icon Mr. Rogers and finds his perspective on life transformed.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Wendy Makkena, Enrico Colantoni, Tammy Blanchard

Director: Marielle Heller

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There’s a scene early in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood when the wife of the main character has just found out her husband is going to be doing an article on the cherished children’s television host, Mr. Rogers.  She knows her husband has a reputation for being a hard-edged journalist that prides himself on showing a different side to the people he covers, often writing a warts and all exposé on their life.  In the nicest, most sincere way she says to him, “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”  I’m trying to think of you, reader, in the same way and will consider that you’ve been looking forward to seeing this drama since the first trailer dropped several months back and people lost their minds seeing Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers.

At the same time, I have to be forthright and honest (just as Mr. Rogers would want) and say that I found it difficult to connect with A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, almost entirely, and I’m still not quite sure why.  It’s not that I didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers.  I was a child of PBS and lived for the days when he opened that closet door and picked out the red sweater because it is my favorite color so I knew it was obviously being chosen just for me.  His delicate delivery made the life lessons being taught feel less like education and more like imagination being put into daily practice and I’ve carried on so much of what I learned watching his show, most of it almost subconsciously.

Maybe it’s the Tom Hanks of it all that did it.  Hanks is probably the closest thing we have right now to a modern Mr. Rogers (the actor recently found out they are related, curiously great timing to coincide with the release, hmm?) and while the actor would eschew the comparison, he’s consistently as the top of the most trustworthy of celebrity lists.  Why not get the actor everyone feels most comfortable with to portray the television personality so much of the country grew up watching? It’s not a far reach in the least…but for me the final product never could get over the fact that it was Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers and never was I able to put that aside.  And that was a problem…a big one.

Inspired by an article written by Tom Junod that ran in Esquire magazine in November 1998, this isn’t a biopic of Mr. Rogers but more of a story of how a friendship with Fred Rogers made an impact on the life of a journalist struggling with personal issues.  Creating a fictionalized version of Junod named Lloyd Vogel, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) and Noah Harpster (who also has a small supporting role) have bookended the film like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, complete with an opening credit montage which cleverly introduces the use of miniature sets as we travel from location to location.  A new father awkwardly more drawn to his work than his newborn, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys, The Post) doesn’t appear to derive pleasure from much and what does interest him he’s more apt to pick apart.

At the insistence of his editor (Christine Lahti, The Doctor), Lloyd travels to Pittsburgh to the set of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood to interview Fred Rogers (Hanks, A League of Their Own) for a special “Heroes” edition of the magazine he works for.  Unconvinced Rogers is as wholesome as he makes himself out to be, Lloyd tries over the course of several interviews to find a crack in the vanilla veneer, only to find himself becoming frustrated when his subject continues to turn the tables on him.  Using his special way with putting people at ease, Rogers is able to coax certain pent up emotions out of the tightly-wound, fiercely guarded Lloyd, feelings he’s tamped down for his own protection and finding them rise up again isn’t a comfortable place for him to be. When Lloyd’s long-absent father (Chris Cooper, Live by Night) returns, it creates a perfect storm for Lloyd to let go of long held anger and come to an acceptance with the man he has become.  With that comes a choice on how he wants to move forward.

For a movie that’s so deeply about the male psyche and how men are apt to hide their feelings instead of expressing them freely, it’s so interesting the film was directed by a female.  In 2018, Marielle Heller did wonders exploring a dark side of alienation in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and she mines similar territory here by making sure the script and actors allow those raw emotional patches to show.  For me, though, Lloyd’s cynicism and buried resentment for his father cut too deep and went on too long…so that by the time Rogers ray of light appeared to guide him out of his dark place, I couldn’t quite find room at my table for his complete redemption.  Whereas in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Heller let her central character dupe unsuspecting people in a scam a fair amount, it didn’t come with such a harsh bite to it.  Lloyd’s so damaged (and also, it must be said, not written with as many dimensions as Rhys tries to give him) that I found myself more uninterested with him in the beginning than anything else.

Though the marketing for the film centers on Hanks, he’s practically a supporting character in the film.  Especially in the latter half, Hanks takes a backseat for Rhys to have his familial drama with his wife (a solid Susan Kelechi Watson, This Is Us) and his dad play out which does lead to a moving emotional climax.  That this finale is set into motion by Fred Rogers isn’t a coincidence, the script seems to have him be behind every emotional turnpike in Lloyd’s feelings freeway.  I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention a rather breathtaking moment shared between Lloyd and Rogers in a café that is played in total silence.  These unique interludes are so powerful and reach right to the heart of you that it made me wish there were tenfold more of them scattered throughout the rest of the movie.

I suppose I should mention I had a similar detached feeling when I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the popular documentary solely focusing on Mr. Rogers, a few years back.  With that one, though, I went in with different expectations because I felt like I was going to connect more with the man himself and was confused why that movie felt so flat at the end.  The doc was certainly well made and informative…but was it anything more than that really?  Mr. Rogers is an adjacent piece of the story being told in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood and some may find, like I did, that main story less inviting and the experience as a whole suffers as a result.  I know I’ll be in the minority of viewers that don’t give it an enthusiastic rave (as we seem to be required to when it comes to anything Mr. Rogers related) and while it’s a film I’m sure will please many, this wasn’t a Neighborhood I could see myself revisiting.

Movie Review ~ Frozen II

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven leave Arendelle to travel to an ancient, autumn-bound forest of an enchanted land. They set out to find the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom.

Stars: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There are some reviews that you look back on and wonder if you just had an off day when you saw the movie or when you wrote the prose. Or maybe you were perhaps too effusive in praise of something that doesn’t hold up to a second (or third) watch.  Then there are the reviews that haunt you in the ensuing years, the ones you wince a little at when you realize how off the mark you were and wonder what you missed and why you missed it.  True, movies and criticism are subjective and that’s what makes this whole reviewing gig as fun as it is (no really, it’s fun…usually) but it’s hard not to beat yourself up a little when you were off target.

Though I wasn’t exactly hard on Frozen back in 2013, I do remember feeling so ho-hum about it and I was quoted as saying it “wasn’t destined to become a pivotal Disney classic”.  Ouch.  I’ve often thought about that phrase as I watched the power ballad “Let it Go” win an Oscar for Best Original Song and the movie win for Best Animated Feature.  The words floated through my brain while seated for the trimmed down theme park show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida and watching clips from the larger-scale production in California.  And I most definitely shook my head at my statement after I had traveled to Denver, CO and paid a good sum to see the pre-Broadway tryout of the big-budget stage musical based on the movie.  Frozen was a phenomenon and I had said in my review I found it less interesting than Tangled.  It’s enough to keep a guy up at night, I tell ya.

So you better believe I was ready when Frozen II was announced to listen a little more to my younger side this time around.  Announced soon after the first film was an unexpected box office smash (making over a billion dollars worldwide), it’s taken six long years for the sequel to materialize and that’s a hearty stretch of time for their target audience to wait.  Disney had to count that children who were the right age to appreciate the original movie would still be interested in the further adventures of Elsa and Anna, two royal sisters that found a deeper understanding of each other at the close of Frozen.  It was a wise bet that has paid off because with the bulk of the creative team reassembled, including the Oscar-winning songwriters, Frozen II confidently builds off its predecessor and delivers as a warm-hearted and surprisingly subtext-rich sequel.

Now that Elsa has come to terms with her icy powers and returned to reign as Queen of Arendelle, life has settled into an ordinary routine for her royal highness and those close to her.  Her sister Anna is clueless to beau Kristoff’s pending marriage proposal that keeps getting interrupted, sometimes by goofy snowman Olaf, who continues to pontificate about life with childish wonderment.  Even with everything running smoothly, Elsa feels unrest and that’s further complicated by a strange siren’s call that only she can hear and apparently tied to a legend her father told as a bedtime story when she was a child.  When Elsa replies to the call, it opens up a passage into an unknown area outside the realm of Arendelle that may hold the answers to her powers and also a dark part of her family history that she and Anna will need to resolve.

It’s a smart move for directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee to have the sisters join forces and make this trip to uncharted territory together. Of course, Kristoff, Olaf, and reindeer Sven are along for the journey too but aside from a few songs and bits of comedy, the latter half of the film is reserved for Elsa and Anna to sort things out for themselves.  The story trajectory takes some interesting turns and while some of the action may feel a bit like a rehash from the earlier film, all the forward motion feels fresh and hits a true chord of fun discovery.

While the screenwriters (aside from Buck/Lee there were three more) do their best to amp up Anna’s role, it’s hard to come away from Frozen II not feeling like Elsa was again the true star and with good reason.  Here’s a character that draws her power from within and doesn’t need any outside force or person to tell her how she should be using her strength.  Her lack of self-confidence is incredibly relatable, as is the way she comes to terms with the way she feels different than others.  It’s understandable that she’s become a bit of an icon for the LGBTQ community and even if it’s not expressly said, it’s difficult to bear witness to a big anthem like “Show Yourself” and not hear the underlying subtext and I found that incredibly moving.

It helps that “Show Yourself” is performed with gusto by Idina Menzel (Ralph Breaks the Internet) again voicing Elsa with a Broadway belt that could shatter ice.  I still feel Menzel’s voice doesn’t match with the animated character (Elsa’s lungs look to be the size of a thimble) and there’s a lot more big notes in Menzel’s songs this time around – the other big number, “Into the Unknown” comes early in the movie and has a earworm-y hook that had audience members singing it on the way out.  So parents…be prepared for another song to make you crazy.  I know that the Frozen II team is going to push “Into the Unknown” as their Oscar song but I find “Show Yourself” to be the one with more mileage in the long run…plus that one also features Evan Rachel Wood (Across the Universe) as Elsa’s mother in addition to Scandinavian singer AURORA as the voice of the siren.  The other numbers are all pleasant but don’t get their hooks into you the way those others do.  As Anna, Kristen Bell (Hit and Run) still has the sunniest singing voice you’ve ever heard while Jonathan Groff’s (American Sniper) Kristoff scores with his Peter Cetera-esqe anthem.  Returning to play Olaf make it official: Josh Gad (The Wedding Ringer) should only appear as a voice in movies from now on.  In live action, he stinks.  As an animated character, he’s a winner.

Like the first film, this runs out of steam as it chugs toward the end and it could easily lose a solid ten minutes, likely lopped off at the beginning because there’s some good character-driven material we don’t often get in animated films around the end that I wouldn’t want to sacrifice.  It may lack some of the larger emotional beats Pixar is so curiously good at but Frozen II isn’t completely bereft of deeper feeling either.  I definitely found myself choked up a few times and even listening to the soundtrack after and hearing the words again I got all misty.

I’ve heard the phrase “cash grab” tossed around in relation to this film and I’m not sure how a film that took six years to get made could be considered a desperate attempt to squeeze money out of a product.  This is a bona fide cash machine and with two movies, a Broadway show going strong, a national touring company getting ready to roll out, and international companies planned, this machine is just getting started.  We should already be getting ready for Frozen III.  If the filmmakers and songwriters can keep finding the heart to these characters and giving them strong songs to express themselves with, I’m all for it.

 

 

Nominations – Film Independent Spirit Awards

Here we go!  The first major awards nominations have been announced and they are the Film Independent Spirit Awards.  Voted on by members of Film Independent with the intention to select winners from films with smaller budgets representing the best of the year and celebrating inclusion and diversity, this tends to be a fun show with a wiiiiiiiide range of films.  It can be hard to predict the nominees and often hard to predict the winners.  Several of the titles below are movies that have received festival runs or East/West coast qualifying releases so far, meaning most of middle America hasn’t seen them yet, but I’m sure looking forward to a number of them.  There will be some overlap of nominees with the Oscars (held the next day) but I hope the tradition continues where it’s not across the board winners throughout the season.

Thankfully, these nominations are announced so early that you have enough time to seek these movies out well beforehand!  So…get to watching!  Don’t forget to bookmark here for all your top award season coverage.

Best Feature
A Hidden Life
Clemency
The Farewell
Marriage Story
Uncut Gems

Best First Feature
Booksmart
The Climb
Diane
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The Mustang
See You Yesterday

Best Director
Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse)
Alma Har’el (Honey Boy)
Julius Onah (Luce)
Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie (Uncut Gems)
Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers)

Best Screenplay
Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
Jason Begue, Shawn Snyder (To Dust)
Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie (Uncut Gems)
Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency)
Tarell Alvin McCraney (High Flying Bird)

Best Female Lead
Karen Allen (Colewell)
Hong Chau (Driveways)
Elisabeth Moss (Her Smell)
Mary Kay Place (Diane)
Alfre Woodard (Clemency)
Renée Zellweger (Judy)

Best Male Lead
Chris Galust (Give Me Liberty)
Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce)
Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse)
Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems)
Matthias Schoenaerts (The Mustang)

Best Documentary
American Factory
Apollo 11
For Sama
Honeyland
Island of the Hungry Ghosts

Best Supporting Female
Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers)
Taylor Russell (Waves)
Zhao Shuzhen (The Farewell)
Lauren “Lolo” Spencer (Give Me Liberty)
Octavia Spencer (Luce)

Best Supporting Male
Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse)
Noah Jupe (Honey Boy)
Shia Labeouf (Honey Boy)
Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco)
Wendell Pierce (Burning Cane)

Robert Altman Award
Noah Baumbach, Douglas Aibel, Francine Maisler, Alan Alda, Laura Dern, Adam Driver, Julie Hagerty, Scarlett Johansson, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson, Merritt Wever (Marriage Story)

Best First Screenplay
Fredrica Bailey, Stefon Bristol (See You Yesterday)
Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen (Driveways)
Bridget Savage Cole, Danielle Krudy (Blow the Man Down)
Jocelyn Deboer, Dawn Luebbe (Greener Grass)
James Montague, Craig W. Sanger (The Vast of the Night)

Best Editing
Julie Béziau (The Third Wife)
Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems)
Tyler L. Cook (Sword of Trust)
Louise Ford (The Lighthouse)
Kirill Mikhanovsky (Give Me Liberty)

Best Cinematography
Todd Banhazl (Hustlers)
Jarin Blaschke (The Lighthouse)
Natasha Braier (Honey Boy)
Chananun Chotrungroj (The Third Wife)
Pawel Pogorzelski (Midsommar)

Best International Film
Invisible Life, Brazil
Les Miserablés, France
Parasite, South Korea
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, France
Retablo, Peru
The Souvenir, United Kingdom

John Cassavetes Award
Burning Cane
Colewell
Give Me Liberty
Premature
Wild Nights With Emily

Producers Award
Mollye Asher
Krista Parris
Ryan Zacarias

Someone to Watch Award
Rashaad Ernesto Green (Premature)
Ash Mayfair (The Third Wife)
Joe Talbot (The Last Black Man in San Francisco)

Truer Than Fiction Award
Khalik Allah (Black Mother)
Davy Rothbart (17 Blocks)
Nadia Shihab (Jaddoland)
Erick Stoll, Chase Whiteside (América)

Annual Bonnie Award
Marielle Heller
Kelly Reichardt
Lulu Wang

The Silver Bullet ~ CATS (Trailer #2)

Synopsis: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

Release Date: December 20, 2019

Thoughts:  Ever since the first trailer for CATS dropped in July, it’s been the talk of the town and not in the way Universal Studios had hoped it would be.  The initial reaction to the starry cast including Jennifer Hudson (The Three Stooges), Judi Dench (All is True), James Corden (Into the Woods), Taylor Swift (The Lorax), Idris Elba (Molly’s Game), Rebel Wilson (The Hustle), and Ian McKellen (Beauty & the Beast) being turned into digital felines was a mixture of hilarity and horror but once that first round of shock wore off I think there was a general curiosity to how exactly the movie would turn out.  Insiders had underestimated the power of a family-friendly feel-good holiday musical before and The Greatest Showman is a perfect example of that.  Still, CATS is a different beast and even though it continues to have it’s strong supporters (I’m a ride or die Rumpleteazer fan and will not apologize) plenty will line up to tear it down.  I was hoping this second trailer would smooth things out a bit and put some of those naysayers in their place but this is another weird looking swirl of kitty kat mayhem.  I mean, I’m fascinated more than ever to see it but it didn’t exactly calm my nerves.  The proportions are strange and the bodies seem weirdly matched to the heads…it’s all just so bizarre.  My mind is just…amazed.

With a little over a month left before the film opens, we’ll be getting more and more teases of CATS and that started last week with the release of a new song written for the movie by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Weber.  With the movie rumored not to be ready in time for early awards consideration (think Golden Globes), the song may be the best bet the picture has at getting an Oscar nomination.  Listen to it below.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The King’s Man



Synopsis
: As a collection of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds gather to plot a war to wipe out millions, one man must race against time to stop them.

Release Date: September 18, 2020

Thoughts: In 2014, the spy adventure Kingsman: The Secret Service was a surprise hit with audiences and critics and presented a cheeky fun alternative to the wise acre superhero franchise films that were multiplying like rabbits.  It also helped to introduce the public to Taron Egerton who would return in 2017 for the go-big-or-go-home sequel before hitting the big time with his hopefully Oscar nominated turn in 2019’s Elton John biopic Rocketman.  With Egerton’s star on the rise and booked out on other projects and with the franchise having bankable legs, 20th Century Fox was in a bit of a tough place with director Matthew Vaughn on how to continue the story of the elite gentlemen’s agency that battled boffo baddies in style.  The answer?  Go back to the beginning. Recently moved from it’s original February release date, September 2020 will now bring us The King’s Man, tracking the original formation of the organization featuring Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets), Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace), Djimon Hounsou (Charlie’s Angels), and Harris Dickinson (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil).  I’m sure I’ll miss the Egerton-factor but this second trailer feels in the same spirit as the two previous films with action packed intrigue to spare.  Looks like royal fun.