Movie Review ~ Lady and the Tramp (2019)


The Facts
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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 ~ On the Basis of Sex


The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her struggles for equal rights, and what she had to overcome in order to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Jack Reynor

Director: Mimi Leder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It seems that the ‘80s and ‘90s were the great heyday of the inspirational biopic.  These films all followed a similar formula, charting the genesis of a famous figure from history through key points in their lives.  Rarely did they tell us things that couldn’t be found by picking up a book written on the subject but there was a certain gauzy quaintness to them that felt comforting.  Actors taking on these famous names often were showered with awards (it’s largely where the term Oscar-bait came from) but when the blueprint became passé, filmmakers had to find new angles in their storytelling. Aside from a few brief flashes (Get on Up, for example) the old-school biopic machine has been shut-down.

I’d love to be able to report that On the Basis of Sex, found an interesting way to bring Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story to the big screen but it’s stuck conforming to the mold of a straightforward retelling of specific moments in the history of a pioneering woman in the legal system.  Though it wisely narrows its focus to a dozen or so years in her early career, it still misses the mark in letting us see deeper into how the Brooklyn-born Ginsburg laid the early groundwork for a career that would see her elected to the Supreme Court and become an unlikely cultural icon.

Entering Harvard Law School in 1956 along with eight other women, Ruth (Felcity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) recognizes she has an uphill battle from the beginning when the Dean of students (Sam Waterston, Miss Sloane) asks her at a formal dinner why she feels she deserved a spot at the respected school that could have been taken by a man.  It’s the first of many misogynistic situations she’ll encounter throughout the ensuing decades as she attempts to join a law firm but barely can get in the door simply because she’s a woman.  Supported by her husband Martin (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name) in every endeavor, Ruth accepts a position as a professor of law at Rutgers and it’s there in 1970 when she comes across a case that will change the course of her career.

Working with the ACLU to combat a sex discrimination case against a man in Denver, CO, Ruth sees this as an opportunity to address the larger issue of numerous laws that are set-up to discriminate against women.  If she can prove that the man was discriminated against, it would help to put into record a new precedent that could be used to rewrite other laws that do not support the equality of women.  Though dogged at every step by the defense attorneys (Stephen Root, Life of the Party and Jack Reynor, Transformers: Age of Extinction) and even at times by her own friend within the ACLU (Justin Theroux, Bumblebee), Ruth soldiers on with the knowledge that the goal of impartiality between the sexes is worthy of the struggle.  Kathy Bates (The Boss) cameos in two scenes as famed lawyer Dorothy Kenyon – I would have liked to see her one more time.

I’m sure it was a benefit to the validity of the facts of the film knowing that On the Basis of Sex was written by Ruth’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman (and that she approved of the finished product will likely make future family gatherings tension-free) but one wonders what someone with less close ties to Ginsburg could have done with the material.  Ruth certainly isn’t shown without flaws but there’s an emotional guardedness to the movie that was unexpected.  I never quite warmed to any of the characters, even when they were supposedly giving inspirational speeches that were meant to elicit cheers.  The most impactful moment of the movie is it’s final shot (which I won’t spoil) but there needed to be more of these moments sprinkled along the way.

Originally set to star Natalie Portman as RBG, when the project took too long to get off the ground she departed and Oscar-nominee Jones joined the cast.  I liked her portrayal of RBG for the most part though the performance ultimately suffers from that aforementioned walled-off emotion the script doesn’t seem to want to grant any of the characters.  Her accent is a bit half-baked and she doesn’t quite look like RBG but it’s close enough to do the trick.  After playing the supportive wife in The Theory of Everything, it was nice to see the roles flipped and for her to have someone in her corner while she charted her own course.  Hammer is always a tad on the milquetoast side but this is the rare time when that passive quietness works in his favor.

Director Mimi Leder has put forth a well-executed period film that is technically sound and hums along nicely for two hours.  The audience I saw this with broke out into huge applause at the end and I saw some wiping away tears as we left so clearly it’s landed emotionally the way everyone had intended.  If I’m being honest, it lost me in some of the legal jargon at times, especially in the third act and I wish more time was spent on Ruth’s life between graduating Harvard and taking up her landmark case.  However, it’s clear there was only so much story to tell and Stiepleman was attentive to what he felt were the important details.  Those looking for a bigger picture view of the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (myself included) will likely want to check out the documentary RBG that was also released this year.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Girl on the Train

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Synopsis: Rachel spends her daily commute fantasizing about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day, until one morning she sees something shocking happen there and becomes entangled in the mystery that unfolds

Release Date:  October 7, 2016

Thoughts: For several years now I find myself thinking at the end of most movies “Emily Blunt should have been in this…Emily Blunt makes everything good.” and it’s an opinion I hold fast to. Luckily, Blunt (Into the Woods) is front and center in this new trailer for the highly anticipated big screen adaptation of the bestselling novel The Girl on the Train.  Sure it shares not only an October release date but a plot kinship with 2014’s nice and twisted Gone Girl, but if this first look is any indication (and, I know, it’s not) Blunt could find herself with an Oscar nomination like Rosamund Pike did for Gone Girl.  Plus…I mean, look at the cast: Allison Janney (The Way, Way Back), Justin Theroux (Wanderlust), Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), Lisa Kudrow (Neighbors)…just a roster of dependable, stellar talent. October is a great month for mystery and I’m ready for my ticket to ride this Train.

Movie Review ~ Zoolander 2

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.

Stars: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Billy Zane, Fred Armisen, Christine Taylor, Cyrus Arnold, Justin Bieber, Kyle Mooney

Director: Ben Stiller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I guess I just need to start this review by owning up to the hard truth that before doing my homework for Zoolander 2 by re-watching the original, I’d only seen Zoolander once, back on the day it opened three weeks after September 11 in 2001.  Arriving at time when audiences needed a brainless piece of fluff to distract them for a minor amount of time, the comedy was 89 minutes of funny, if perplexing, moments.  For each solid laugh there were a dozen groans and while it did a fair job skewering the easy target of male models and fashionistas, it never left a lasting impression on me.  In the years since it’s evolved into a bit of a cult hit (it did better business on video than it did in theaters), but I never felt the need to revisit it until the sequel came creaking along.

Now, no one is going to accuse director/writer/star Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) of missing the boat on cashing in on a sequel to a popular title from his canon.  With Meet the Parents, Madagascar, and Night of the Museum now trilogies, Stiller likely was running through his IMDb page and landed on Zoolander as the target of his next trip to the Stiller well (we should be thankful he didn’t set his sights on Starsky & Hutch or Dodgeball…oh wait, a sequel to Dodgeball is already in development).

A whopping 15 years after the original was released, Zoolander 2 is ready to strut its stuff on a catwalk near you and while overall it’s better made than its predecessor, it suffers from the same chronic forgetability.  Though Stiller and co-star Owen Wilson (Inherent Vice) look remarkably, um, “refreshed”, the jokes and comic foibles of the two dunderhead models start to feel musty halfway through the smorgasbord of cameo appearances and off-the-wall tangents.

A freak accident a decade ago sent former male model Derek Zoolander (Stiller) into exile in Northern New Jersey and split his family apart.  When he’s called out of retirement by Billy Zane bearing an invitation to model in Italy, Derek agrees as a way to show he can be a fit parent and provide for his son.  Meanwhile, Hansel (Wilson) has been hiding out in Malibu, ashamed of a disfigurement that ended his career.  He’s also visited by Zane with the same offer of redemption and in an attempt to find out who he really is, agrees to put his shallow pride to the side and take to the runway.  Soon after their arrival, Derek and Hansel are in the middle of a conspiracy within the fashion world involving a legend that’s part The Da Vinci Code and part acid trip which threatens to end their careers (and lives) for good.

Upping the ante from the original film, the cameos that Stiller has secured are plentiful.  Running the gamut from Susan Boyle to Anna Wintour, Stiller isn’t messing around when it comes to stacking the deck with famous faces even though it’s clear many of them filmed in front of a blue screen and were digitally input into the scenes.  Without question, the majority of the fun derived from revisiting Stiller’s brainless model is picking out the stars that pass through the frame.  And the film earned a full two stars from me in its opening moments when it blessedly offs an annoying pop star that definitely had it coming.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments, because it does have some sequences that are so absurd you can’t help but laugh at the insanity of it all.  To their credit, Stiller and fellow screenwriters Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg insert joke upon joke upon joke so if four are duds there’s sure to be one solid laugh coming right on their heels.  The film gets its best results with Will Ferrell (Daddy’s Home) reprising his role as a megalomaniac designer and Kristen Wiig (The Martian) made up to the high heavens as a European fashion maven modeled after Donatella Verasce.  When Ferrell and Wiig are involved, you just have to let the camera roll and they’ll do the work for you.  The biggest surprise of the film is how high Penelope Cruz flies.  The Oscar winner hasn’t been this free for years and she seems to relish the opportunity to play with broad strokes.

Yet overall the film feels as hollow as the fashion world itself.  It’s all fun on the surface and in the moment but it leaves no lasting impression on the viewer.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an overall positive reaction during the screening, I laughed at the most absurd passages (be prepared to let Fred Armisen haunt your dreams as a…well…I shan’t spoil the remarkable vision for you) and enjoyed myself sporadically, but upon reflection it’s simply a well packaged bag of potato chips…more stale air than actual food.

The Silver Bullet ~ Zoolander 2

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Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.

Release Date: February 12, 2016

Thoughts: In a case of striking while the iron is ice cold, Ben Stiller is resurrecting his dunderhead model character from the 2001 sleeper hit. Released two weeks after the September 11 attacks, the original film represented the first chance for audiences to laugh again with the skewering satire of the model industry that doesn’t exactly (in my mind at least) hold up on repeat viewings. Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) isn’t wanting for directing/acting opportunities or franchise endeavors so I’m curious to see why 2016 was the right time to bring back Derek Zoolander. This teaser is a little on the obnoxious side but with Tropic Thunder screenwriter Justin Theroux (Wanderlust) providing the script, maybe there’s hope for something worth the 15 year wait.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Iron Man 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Tony Stark has declared himself Iron Man and installed world peace… or so he thinks. He soon realizes that not only is there a mad man out to kill him with his own technology, but there’s something more: he is dying.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Garry Shandling, John Slattery, Kate Mara, Clark Gregg, Olivia Munn

Director: Jon Favreau

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I’m going to say it, okay?  I’m just going to come out and say it.  The time has come for me to state something publically for all the blog-world to read.  Are you ready?   I liked Iron Man 2 more than I liked the first Iron Man.  Wow…ok…that felt really great to say.  I realize I’m in the minority here and that many, many, many people would disagree but at the end of the day and after watching both films back to back I still find the second entry to be a tad more entertaining and fulfilling than the first.

Now that’s not a knock on the first film which in and of itself was a strong film and a great kick start to the Avengers franchise that we have today.  What shaved a tiny fraction of a point off for me was an iffy first half where I always find my mind wandering whenever I see it.  Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in the first Iron Man is strong but I think everyone that was carried over into the second entry (good-by Terrence Howard, hello Don Cheadle) just has more to work with.

Maybe that’s because the script for Iron Man had four writers while Iron Man 2 was penned solo by Justin Theroux (recommended by Downey Jr. after writing Tropic Thunder) and the script feels more like the voice of one rather than the voice of many.  There’s more character development, a tighter beginning, and enough material to carry the film from start to finish.

After the success of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Studios stumbled again with yet another attempt at The Incredible Hulk.  Though that film did decent business (and included a cameo from Iron Man), it wasn’t the homerun that Iron Man was so there was even more pressure on Iron Man 2 to right a listing ship.  Aided by more action and visual effects, the movie really delivers on a massive scale…even more impressive when I saw it on an IMAX screen that awed me even as I was deafened by the booming sound design.

Adding more layers to Tony Stark, Downey Jr. feels at home in the role and Theroux adds some opportunities for Downey Jr.’s wry comedic strengths to shine.  Once again Downey Jr. and Paltrow exhibit a great chemistry and even the introduction of a sultry new Stark Company employee (Johansson) can’t drive a wedge between the two.  Johansson (who replaced Emily Blunt) is here to introduce the Black Widow that would play a part in later Avengers films and her presence adds a decent amount of anticipation for what would come next.  Rockwell and Rourke are nice yin/yang villains with Rockwell’s hyper charm working well alongside Rourke’s reserved blood boiler. 

I found the first Iron Man to be an entertaining superhero movie but nothing truly spectacular.  Iron Man 2 falls into largely the same category but it does what sequels should do – deliver something bigger while also moving our characters forward at the right pace.  It’s clear that these Avenger movies have been very carefully plotted out because they need to tie into each other at key points – Iron Man 2 fits nicely into the grand scheme of this world.