Movie Review ~ Black Widow

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha Romanoff must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, O.T. Fagbenle, Rachel Weisz, William Hurt, Ray Winstone

Director: Cate Shortland

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  In the year we’ve had to wait since Black Widow was supposed to debut, I’ve occasionally caught wind of a think piece or two (oh, how I love a think piece by another wise Marvel fan or general fuddy duddy) that has blasted the movie for being “too little, too late”.  Too little, too late for what?  We live in a world where we make full billion-dollar trilogies that later serve as prequels to sequels that are themselves sequels to their own prequels.  I think we can allow a superhero or two to come back from the dead so they can tell their origin story.  If I have to sit through countless tales of how Batman got his cowl and Superman got his cape, I believe I’ve earned the right to know how Black Widow developed her love of changing up her hairstyles.

At times, over the years that Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story) has played Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, I will find myself wondering what the character and even the whole Avengers make-up would have been like had Emily Blunt stayed with the role as originally cast.  Hilariously, it was Blunt’s commitment to the far over-schedule 2009 Jack Black ‘classic’ Gulliver’s Travels which led to her stepping down from the part when it was introduced in Iron Man 2, paving the way for Johansson to take it on. The rest is history and now Johansson is set for life with all the residuals she’ll receive for her efforts.  Part of that deal was, I’m sure, this stand-alone film that was never quite the priority until now and I’m actually glad it came out when it did.  Now, Black Widow isn’t just seen as a filler film while audiences wait for the next Avengers adventure, and it doesn’t have to be a connector (at least a major one) to anything currently cooking in the Marvel Universe.

Right off the bat audiences are going to be able to tell that director Cate Shortland and screenwriters Jac Schaeffer, Eric Pearson, & Ned Benson don’t have a traditional Marvel movie in mind.  Far more along the lines of a James Bond-ian espionage thriller for the majority of its running length, the Marvel-ness of it all doesn’t truly come into play until the final act when we get a major dose of the heroism that has come to define this franchise up through today.  That accomplishes two things in my book.  There’s a little something thrown in for those fans who miss their Marvel friends and have been waiting for more high stakes action (though The Falcon and The Winter Soldier on Disney+ had a fair amount of it) and it gives Johansson a stand-alone film that has a style all its own.  A superlative plus is the addition of two (or two and a half possibly) new characters that amp up the fun.

An opening prologue introduces us to young Natasha and her “sister” Yelena as well as her “parents” Alexei (David Harbour, Hellboy) and Melina (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) while they are posing as an American family in the mid ‘90s.  After their mission goes south, the group is separated and it’s only after the events of Captain America: Civil War twenty years later when Natasha is a fugitive from the government that she is put on a collision course with her past.  Reuniting with the now-grown Yelena (an fantastic and energetic Florence Pugh, Little Women), another in a long line of Black Widows, the two have some old business to work through first and their physical and verbal sparring is one of the first highlights Shortland capitalizes on.  Showing Natasha and Yelena as immovable forces pursuing each other, the interplay between the two is captured with a fresh style and played to the hilt by both actresses. 

Eventually breaking out Alexei from a maximum-security prison (another gigantic and impressive sequence), the two Black Widows now have an aging former father figure to deal with, one that served as Russia’s version of Captain America: the Red Guardian.  Though offing mugging to the extreme back of the theater, Harbour has a good time with this role and when he’s not trying to fit into his old suit, he’s finding some nice ways to connect with Pugh to quash a few fake-father/fake-daughter issues.  This all leads to finding mom who may just have the key to how a vengeful assassin (Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace) has been tracking them down and also how to save numerous Black Widows out in the field from a maniacal villain (Ray Winstone, Cats) that is controlling their every move.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to watch the film and not have that one scene in the Avengers: Endgame (you know the scene) in the forefront your mind. Yet it doesn’t render this movie pointless nor even gives it a feeling of remoteness in relation to the action that’s taking place in front of you.  Black Widow is exactly what it sets out to be, a summer blockbuster stand-alone utilizing an existing character from a proven franchise.  The popular character has been given a breakneck outing that has its own style that separates it from others, but still has enough of the Avengers DNA (and that welcome final credit scene…stay for it) to link it to what has come before.

Movie Review ~ Launchpad

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A collection of 6 short films. Six filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds were selected and provided with the opportunity to share their perspectives and creative visions that will show audiences what it means to be seen.

Directors: Aqsa Altaf, Hao Zheng, Ann Marie Pace, Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Jessica Mendez Siqueiros, Moxie Peng

Running Length: Each episode runs between 15-20 minutes

TMMM (Overall) Score: (8/10)

Review: Since its launch in November 2019, Disney+ has been a welcome resource for finding (most) of your favorite Disney films from the past as well as providing new content that has delivered on its promise to impress and inspire.  While the Marvel series it has fostered so far have created the appropriate brouhaha and its first foray into the Star Wars serialized universe with The Mandalorian brought it early legitimacy, the streaming service has also done quite a lot to support new talent for the next generation.  Recognizing the benefit of mentoring future bright minds, the company has made a concerted commitment to bringing more inclusive filmmaking programs to fruition and utilizing their new digital platform as an easy showcase for the finished products.

Disney+ subscribers were first exposed to this with the Sparkshorts series, an offshoot of Pixar in which the animation branch’s employees are given six months and a modest budget to develop their own short.  While some early works that weren’t exclusive to this program premiered in theaters, all formal participants go right into the Disney+ queue for viewers to discover…and evidently many have because within two years Kitbull and Burrow have been nominated for an Oscar. 

Encouraged by this success, the studio has now teamed with Panavision for the first season of Disney’s Launchpad which is now available.

According to the press notes,

Disney’s Launchpad is a collection of live-action shorts from a new generation of dynamic storytellers. Six filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds were selected and provided with the opportunity to share their perspectives and creative visions that will show audiences what it means to be seen. The goal of Disney’s Launchpad is to diversify the types of stories that are being told and to give access to those who have historically not had it. Inspired by life’s journey, these first six shorts for Disney+ are based on the theme, “Discover.”

Providing the filmmakers with twelve months to complete the work and the resources, support, and top of the line film equipment courtesy of Panavision to make their dream a reality, the studio not only has given visibility to a population that isn’t always represented in film but done so without a lot of grand ceremony to it.  If all six films were stuffy, hand-holding reminders to be culturally aware and sensitive then the initial message of representation would have been lost.  While not all winners, each film does well by telling a story from an individual perspective where race or culture isn’t always the first thing that defines the characters.

American Eid – directed by Aqsa Altaf
Synopsis: Ameena, a homesick Muslim Pakistani immigrant, wakes up on Eid to find out she has to go to school.
Review: At the end of Ramadan is Eid or “Festival of Breaking the Fast” and this first short of the collection expects you to have done your homework (or do it after the fact like I did) to learn about the importance of this religious holiday in the Muslim community. It’s certainly a big deal for Ameena, the young immigrant girl who is spending her first Eid in America and wondering why she has to go to school when back in Pakistan they had the day off.  Her older sister just prefers to be like a normal American teen and not take part in the usual festivities but Ameena just wants things to be as they were, going so far as to create a petition to have Eid recognized as a holiday at her school.  There’s a blithe sweetness to Ameena’s quest not just to get the day off but to reconnect with her sister.  The resolution to this one might have you reaching for the tissues.

Dinner is Served – directed by Hao Zheng
Synopsis: A Chinese student uncovers his true identity when trying out for a leadership role at a U.S. school.
Review: A number of these Launchpad episodes felt like short chapters from a longer film the director is interested in making and Dinner is Served is a great example of this. Xiaoyu is attending an elite boarding school in the U.S., hoping to train for a maître d’ position.  The entirety of the 20-minute run time feels so self-contained for the small story being told but you can easily see it being just a part of a larger journey Xiaoyu undertakes as he comes into his own in the United States.  For this particular section of his tale, he survives the rigors of self-doubt and slight setbacks to lead him on a path to success, until the reality of the world he has entered deals him a devastating blow, changing his future outlook.  It may not end quite as strongly as it begins because it falls into some expected traps of too-pat developments, but the restraint shown in the first 2/3 is laudable.

Growing Fangs – directed by Ann Marie Pace
Synopsis: Val Garcia, a Mexican-American half human/half vampire teenager, struggles to fit in either world.
Review: Oddly enough, this was the one I thought I wouldn’t be able to get into, yet it turned out being my second favorite of the group and the first one I could conceivably see Disney seriously considering expanding into a full-length feature or even a series of its own.  There’s an oddball tone to director Ann Marie Pace’s short that is a welcome change of pace from the previous episodes, introducing us to high school half human/half vampire teenager Val Garcia.  Struggling with this duality in addition to her blossoming love for one of her classmates, Val is a people pleaser first and worries about herself second.  This winds up causing more trouble than anything and Pace manages to consistently zig when we think she’s going to zag, making the twenty minutes fly by.  I could have easily watched this for another 20 or even 40 minutes.  Did I mention this was also riotously funny, especially an early family meal sequence that has a couple of true treasures in the laugh department?

Let’s Be Tigers – directed by Stefanie Abel Horowitz
Synopsis: Grieving for her mother, Avalon finds comfort when she’s put in charge of a 4-year-old for a night.
Review: The shortest of the offerings is also the most emotionally raw so I wound up being glad it wasn’t that long of a commitment.  Admittedly, it wasn’t my favorite of the bunch, mostly because it didn’t feel as polished or complete of an experience as the others. That’s not to say director Stefanie Abel Horowitz doesn’t initiate some important conversations about death and what it’s like for those who grieve.  When compared to the previous episodes, this has a slower pace and employs a less flashy style, allowing the performances to come out.  There’s not a lot to the story, but Hororwitz and her cast have an easy flow with filling in some gaps of narrative when called to do so.

The Last of the Chupacabras – directed by Jessica Mendez Siqueiros
Synopsis: A lonely Mexican-American woman unknowingly summons a dark and ancient creature.
Review: Yes, I completely went out of order and watched this one first because I thought it was going to be a scary one.  I’m totally guilty of actually thinking Disney handed over all these cameras and money so a director could make a splatter film about the Mexican creature from folklore.  Instead, this is an eccentric tale of a woman who pushes a tamale cart who arrives home after another long day on her feet to her crafty home filled with puppets and creatures representing her culture.  Somehow, she manages to conjure up a Chupacabra and proceeds to adopt it as her pseudo-pet for the evening, eventually using it to bite back at the tourists that gawk at her from their tour busses while taking her picture but otherwise pretending she isn’t there.  You can see what director Jessica Mendez Siqueiros is getting at and from a production standpoint the short looks grand, but the zany story and wide-eyed acting of the leading actress made this one lower on the rung for me.

The Little Prince(ss) – directed by Moxie Peng
Synopsis: When Chinese kids Gabriel and Rob become friends, Rob’s dad questions Gabriel’s feminine behavior.
Review: Obviously saving the best for last, the first season of Disney’s Launchpad concludes with The Little Prince(ss) and, again, we’re wading in familiar water in this short from writer/director Moxie Peng.  Tiny Chinese first grader Gabriel loves to wear pink and dance ballet, very different from his new friend, 2nd grader Rob who plays basketball but doesn’t have a true passion for it.  Meeting on the bus one day, the boys become friends…which is OK by Gabriel’s dad but a problem for Rob’s.  Objecting to Gabriel wearing “girly” clothes and “not acting like a boy”, Rob’s dad pays a visit to Gabriel’s home one night to deliver a message but winds up getting one himself.  Remember that tissue box I told you to get out for American Eid, you’ll definitely want to have it handy for this one.  Peng’s film might not feature the strongest performances (the children are beyond adorable but…yeah…) but it has the most direct pathway to your heart/mind message as a takeaway. 

Season 2 of Disney’s Launchpad is already in the works and while this season had a theme of “Discover”, season 2 will be built around a different theme, “Connect”. Based on the overall strength of the initial run of episodes, I’ll be looking forward to what’s launching next.

Movie Review ~ Raya and the Last Dragon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An ancient evil has returned to the fantasy world of Kumandra and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people.

Stars: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, Ross Butler

Director: Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It really is fascinating to see how far animation has come, specifically Disney animated features, over the last three decades.  As hand-drawn animation was being phased out in favor of the faster speed of computer rendered movies that could produce stunning life-like characters, Disney managed to have their cake and eat it too when they brought Pixar into the fold while maintaining their own feature animation department.  For a while, it was Pixar that ruled the roost and turned out motion pictures of high caliber that recalled that Disney renaissance of the late 80s/early 90s that all but saved the studio.  The hand-drawn side had measured success with strong films but it wasn’t until the one-two punch releases of Frozen in 2013 and Moana in 2016 that made it clear there was still life left in the format.

Evolving from simply bringing classic fairy tales to life, the studio has listened to their audiences around the globe and continued to create work that represents people from all walks of life from shore to shore.  Now, instead of asking “What bedtime story are they bringing to the screen” we ask “what country/culture are they using as an influence this time around?” and I think that aside from it being a necessary business move it shows a company changing with the times and leading the way, not struggling to catch up with their competitors.

That’s not to say each film is easy.  Take Raya and the Last Dragon for example.  This new feature went through some interesting press as it made its way to a release since first being announced back in 2018 thanks to a small bit of business regarding the voice casting of its lead female.  Though she had originally auditioned back in 2019, Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) was not cast as Raya, a young warrior princess on a quest to restore order to a divided land.  The original actress that was cast wound up not bringing the kind of maturity the filmmakers had wanted so they returned to Tran a year later and Tran re-recorded the role.  It’s not the first time Disney has done this (2015’s The Good Dinosaur was almost entirely scrapped after it was completed and redone from the beginning) but it was interesting that they could have had Tran all along but opted in another direction first.

Inspired by the culture and communities found in the Southeast Asian islands, Raya and the Last Dragon is an original story from your usual full table of writers that contributed bits and pieces and rewrites over the course of production, but it is surprisingly full in its mythology and storytelling.  Hold on tight because the opening narration from Raya swiftly relays via flashback the history of the land of Kumandra and how it became split into five separate tribes after evil spirts named the Druun ripped through the bountiful landscape.  This was a time of dragons that drew on their own magic to protect the people of Kumandra from being turned to stone by the Druun that continued to terrorize the land.  In doing so, they fell victim to the grasp of the evil entity and the magic was transferred to a single dragon that finally unleashed the might of the power and restored balance.  The people were saved but divided and the dragons were no more.  Only the power source of their magic remained, housed in a glowing orb held in a sacred temple by one tribe.

Continuing in flashback, we see how Raya’s father (a mother is never mentioned), the leader of the tribe and tasked with protecting the orb, only wishes to unite the five tribes again but his efforts fall on ears that won’t hear, bringing out the worst in the visiting leaders.  During this visit, young Raya bonds with Namaari, the daughter of another tribe leader but the friendly interaction turns unexpectedly sour.  True intentions are revealed and in doing so sets into motion a tidal wave of events that have long lasting repercussions for everyone, sending Raya on a quest to the ends of the mighty rivers in search of answers from a source only spoken about in legend.  By the time she’s found the right river’s end, she meets the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) that holds a key to uniting the tribes…but a familiar foe from her past has also been seeking the mythical creature and will stop at nothing to get what they want.

To summarize any fraction of the remaining plot of Raya and the Last Dragon would be impossible in the space I’ve allotted for myself here and would reveal too much of the unique characters of the real and imagined kind the Disney animators and directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall have in store for viewers.  It’s a more complicated plot than most and younger viewers may find it harder to follow from a story perspective, though I can imagine older adults will find the addition of a narrative that involves more political maneuvering and topical contemplations on community agreement that are strikingly reflective of our own current woes quite intriguing.  It also finds time to have the typical Disney humor and the laughs are welcome among some of the darker subject matter.

As expected, the animation work is stunning and not only is the amount of detail that can now be displayed totally mind-blowing, but some scenes look like an actual live-action film and I still am on the fence if it really wasn’t.  Was it?  With the story taking up our attention and the visuals leaning toward the overwhelming, it’s the voice work that tends to be a little lacking in this one.  That’s not faulting the actors in any way, but the focus just isn’t there as much as it has been in other films.  Tran has the right balance of passionate fight within her and sensitive care that she shares outwardly; clearly the filmmakers made the right choice to use her.   In smaller roles, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians), Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy), Sandra Oh (Tammy), and Benedict Wong (The Martian) are pleasant but, again, never ‘pop’ like I’m used to voice talent doing in the past.  Only Awkwafina drums up some energy with her line readings and you can’t help but hear a little bit of Aladdin’s Genie in the performance…which is fine…but it’s definitely there.

Lacking the kind of big moment that were defining pieces of Frozen and Moana, I’m not sure where Raya and the Last Dragon will wind up within the Disney Animation roster when the rankings are reshuffled.  It has the prestige of a well-honed plot and is one of the classier screenplays Disney has produced in some time, but in other ways the film has a flatness to it that it can’t quite rise above.  It achieves a beautiful moment of harmony right at the end…but by that time we’ve waited nearly two hours for that tug at our hearts and for Disney, that may be too long of a wait.

 

If you catch Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters, you’ll also see Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first animated short in five years, Us Again.  For those watching the movie at home, Us Again will be available on Disney+ in June!  Check out my review of Us Again here.

Movie Review ~ Onward


The Facts
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Synopsis: Two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.

Stars: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, John Ratzenberger, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodgriguez

Director: Dan Scanlon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: By this point, I’ve gotten pretty good about preparing to see a Pixar film. I always make sure I bring Kleenex from home because when I inevitably cry, wiping my eyes/nose with the rough napkins from the movie theater always leaves them a bit red and raw. Also, it’s best to make sure you know where the exit is so you can make a quick dash out of the place if the theater is cruel and turns the lights on immediately when the movie is over, exposing all the tear-stained faces to the rest of the crowd. The best place to sit is near the entrance, on an aisle and definitely not near a family with small children because you don’t want to step on any kids as you try to avoid people seeing the after effects of your ugly cry.

I say this now looking back at my experience of watching Onward and recognizing that my mind was in a completely different place that day and I totally forgot all my pre-planning rules. Here I was, a guy that just celebrated a milestone birthday and about to mark the 12 year anniversary of the loss of my father and I had no tissues, was seated in the middle of a row with families all around me seeing a movie about sons using magic to spend one last day with their deceased father. Was I completely crazy?

The town of New Mushroomton isn’t quite the magical mecca it used to be as we see when the prologue for Onward begins. All sorts of magical creatures coexisted and used their gifts to get by, whether it was creating fire for light/heat or flying over vast oceans. Then, with the evolution of science the world began to find ways to accomplish magical tasks without magic (lightbulbs, airplanes) and the need for wizards, magic staffs, and important quests dissipated.  On the eve of his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is just wanting to feel a little more at home in his own skin. His mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said) encourages him to be more outgoing at school and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) thinks that life should be lived like its one big role-playing game. More than anything, though, Ian wishes he had met his dad who died before he was born. Barley barely remembers him but at least he has something…Ian doesn’t have anything. So when their mom presents a gift their dad had asked her to reveal when both were over 16, it sets them off on a journey to complete a spell that will bring him back for 24 hours.

The first attempt at the spell only brings back the bottom half of their dad so communication comes through the feet, and it will take finding another rare stone to complete the magic that will restore him fully. Forcing the vastly different brothers to work together, the search for the gem puts them into contact with a mythical Manticore (Octavia Spencer, Ma) who was once fearsome but is now toothless and through challenges straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure. As is typical with any Pixar film, there’s a host of wild supporting characters throughout with some appearing briefly (two words: feral unicorns) and others getting a bit more screen time (Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe is Pixar’s first confirmed lesbian character) but the main focus is on the brothers and how they come to appreciate one another through their time together.

The long and short of it is this: yes, I did cry in Pixar’s latest tear-factory fantasy movie but it was not the severe ugly cry I was afraid it would be. Instead, I was taken with how the studio has once again managed to take a sensitive subject and made it palatable for children and a good jumping off discussion point for adults to have with their kids if any questions come up after the movie. Death is always a hard topic to discuss but in several of their movies, Pixar has found a way into that conversation that isn’t as scary as it might have been years ago when there weren’t animated characters that are saying some of the same things children are also feeling. Writer/director Dan Scanlon also has a nice way of bringing a lot of plot points together into one theme as the film moves toward its conclusion – I wasn’t sure how he was going to do it but it gets there in a lovely way.

It’s always risky now in this Must Be Proven Franchise Material cinema world we live in to create original story but Onward is a striking bit of computer generated fun with pathos on top of it all. The animation is beautiful…so is the message.

 

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 ~ Frozen II

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The Facts
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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.

 

 

Movie Review ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Maleficent and her goddaughter Aurora begin to question the complex family ties that bind them as they are pulled in different directions by impending nuptials, unexpected allies, and dark new forces at play.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Skrein, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harris Dickinson, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Robert Lindsay

Director: Joachim Rønning

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The spindles of the spinning wheels were poised and ready to strike when Maleficent was released in 2014 to much fanfare.  How would ardent fans of the classic Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty react to a live-action retelling of the genesis of the evil fairy that cursed the snoozing princess?  Crafting a backstory for the dark fairy that softened her up a bit but still let her sinister side through, the film was saturated with CGI and not all of it looked great.  While it added it’s own twist to the fairy tale, it still felt tied to the source material and lifted large portions of dialogue from the 1959 animated film.  The result was a box-office winner that satisfied but didn’t exactly inspire – there was simply too large a shadow looming over it.

Five years later Maleficent is back and this time she’s free from being moved through the paces recounting a story we already know the end of and more’s the better in my opinion.  While it still relies far too much on CGI (though in a make-believe kingdom stuffed with elves, sprites, and other woodland creations what did you expect?) it’s a more engaging story than the first.  I won’t say the stakes are exactly higher in the sequel but future happiness for more than just Princess Aurora (now Queen of the Moors Aurora) is on the line.  The biggest improvement is that screenwriters Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast), Micah Fitzerman-Blue, and Noah Harpster give star Angelina Jolie a worthy opponent in another high cheekbone-d A-lister.

Living in their happily ever after bliss, Aurora (Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon) and Philip (Harris Dickinson) decide to make it official and get married, much to the dismay of Maleficent (Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 2) who still feels the sting of scorned love and wishes to keep her goddaughter close to her.  Pledging to keep Aurora happy, Maleficent agrees to meet Philip’s parents for a dinner at their castle but doesn’t make a great first impression, living up to her reputation as a temperamental guest.  When the King (Robert Lindsay) falls under a spell before they can have dessert, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) accuses Maleficent of resorting to her old tricks to stop the wedding.

Fleeing the castle and Aurora’s suspecting glare, Maleficent is injured and taken in by a horde of Dark Feys, winged creatures like her that possess many of her same powers.  Even without her godmother by her side, Aurora moves forward with her wedding to Philip, unknowingly entering into dangerous territory with Ingrith who has a dark agenda planned for her future daughter-in-law and the land she reigns over.  As a war brews between the human kingdom and the Moor forces, a power struggle emerges between Ingrith and Maleficent that will alter the fate of many of our favorite characters.

What’s surprising to note in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is how much time Jolie is absent from the film.  It’s not a significant amount of time but there are large stretches when you’ll likely miss her presence because she lends the film (as she did in the first) a certain winking fun.  When she’s not onscreen, the action starts to feel a little melodramatic and silly and even Pfeiffer isn’t immune to some over-the-top bits of camp.  Still, Pfeiffer doesn’t often get to play the heavy like she does here and she looks like she’s having a grand time in her gorgeous costumes by Ellen Mirojnick (The Greatest Showman).  The sparring between Pfeiffer and Jolie is a bit restrained (even the ladies in Downton Abbey got a few more snide jabs in) but they are both strong forces that have a commanding onscreen presence.  Often, the screen is definitely not big enough for the two of them.

While the CGI is still plentiful, it’s smoother looking than the first film so not quite as cartoony this time around.  I enjoyed the aerial views of the two kingdoms resting next to one another and the various creature creations the artists have dreamed up.  I could have done without two gibberish speaking nymphs that get trapped in a dungeon by a fallen pixie (Warwick Davis, Solo: A Star Wars Story) but as a whole the variety of flora and fauna were a wonder to behold.  Director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Kon-Tiki) keeps the movie going full steam ahead, even if it does clock in longer than it should running nearly two hours.  There’s perhaps a bit too much time spent with the Dark Feys Borra (Ed Skrein, Alita: Battle Angel) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Lion King) without giving them more backstory but its in service to getting back to the main action with Maleficent and Ingrith.

While I still find Fanning to be lacking in the total package for a next generation leading lady, she’s improving and shows it here with a more balanced take on a princess coming into her own.  Paired with the cardboard-ish Dickinson, she doesn’t let the script put her into a damsel in distress box and gamely takes action in the super-sized finale.  There’s one line near the end that’s terribly misogynistic that I’ve been stuck over for the last few days and it’s almost enough for me to knock the film a whole star down.  I’ve decided in the end I’m giving it a slight pass seeing the resolution to another storyline that could have gone wrong handled in an unexpected way.

Pairing nicely with the original movie, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil didn’t have a huge hurdle to overcome in living up to its predecessor.  I think it will please fans of the first film and, like me, might serve as an improvement over what came before.  It goes to show you how getting the right combination of people together is worth taking the time for, had this sequel been turned out quickly after Maleficent came out in 2014 it might not have been as polished as this follow-up is.

Movie Review ~ Toy Story 4


The Facts
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Synopsis: When a new toy called “Forky” joins Woody and the gang, a road trip alongside old and new friends reveals how big the world can be for a toy.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Joan Cusack, Lori Alan, Blake Clark, Estelle Harris

Director: Josh Cooley

Rated: G

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: I’m pretty sure most audiences, like me, thought this toy box was closed for good. After changing the face of computer animation with the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar followed their original story up with two sequels that managed to improve exponentially on their predecessors. Culminating in 2010 with the beloved, three-hanky Toy Story 3, favorite toys Woody and Buzz Lightyear had a fantastic send-off that was just about the most perfect ending to a story you could ask for. At the time, everyone involved said three films was the limit and they were done with the Toy Story franchise…but a few box office duds and less successful sequels to other popular titles ‘inspired’ the animators at Pixar to come up Toy Story 4.

Usually, in these seemingly desperate situations no good can come of the product that’s created and I braced myself going into Toy Story 4 for a sequel that didn’t measure up. The news at the outset is that no, Toy Story 4 is not as winning as the previous film nor does it have the same complexities that made that last chapter mean so much to adults as well as kids. However, the moment I stopped trying to compare this film to the one that came before I sort of released any tension I had going in and was easily won over. This relatively uncomplicated, but very entertaining, entry gives audiences everything they want. From the characters major and minor we love, to the dizzying hijinks that have become a staple of the prime Pixar pictures, Toy Story 4 works like gangbusters when the gang is all together.

At the end of Toy Story 3, Andy left his prized toys with toddler Bonnie when he went off to college and as this film opens the toys are enjoying their rebooted life with a new child. True, not all of them get the same play time as others, namely Woody (Tom Hanks, Sully) who nicely abdicates his sheriff duties to Jessie (Joan Cusack, Working Girl) because Bonnie prefers her. With Bonnie set to begin Kindergarten, Woody steals away in her backpack to keep an eye on her should she need any comfort and bears witness to the creation of a new toy, Forky (Tony Hale, American Ultra). A crude construction from a spork, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks, he becomes Bonnie’s new favorite though the recently born toy keeps trying to pitch himself into any available waste paper bin because he only thinks of himself as “trash”.

With Woody busy trying to keep Forky from going out with the garbage, the rest of the toys take a minor backseat to the action until Bonnie and her parents take a small road trip before school officially begins. It’s here the movie really begins after a half hour of funny, if a tad bit staid, sequences with Woody and the group. Though I’m sure Forky will become a popular toy with fans and the deeper meaning to his metaphysical questioning of life will inspire numerous think pieces, I found this first act of the movie a wee bit ungainly.  To me, Forky and his desperate attemps to run away became an annoyance…and I wondered why all the toys just didn’t let him be on his merry way.  Again, while on the early stages of the road trip, Forky makes a run for it and Woody follows, eventually winding up in an second-hand antique store lorded over by a Gabby Gabby doll (Christina Hendricks, The Neon Demon) and her ventriloquist dummy minions (scary!) with designs on Woody’s voicebox.

The antique shop and the traveling carnival that sits right outside the store provides Pixar people ample space to let their imaginations run wild and they have a ball creating a host of new toys and gadgets for our stalwarts to interact with. I had forgotten that Bo Peep (Annie Potts, Ghostbusters) hadn’t been in the last film and it was nice to see her move into a leading role as the female foil to Woody. Having been given away by her previous owner, Bo Peep (and her sheep) have been living as lost toys for seven years and show Woody the ways of the wild and help him break into the antique shop to look for Forky. These movies have always been quite targeted to boys and though the introduction of Jessie in the second film was meant to balance things out it never truly felt like an equal distribution of material. That error seems to have been nicely righted here by fleshing out Bo Peep as an independent toy capable of more than just tending sheep.

In addition to Gabby Gabby who is perhaps more than just merely a villain but a toy aching for feeling the same love and belonging the others have felt, there’s a Canadian stunt toy (Keanu Reeves, Parenthood) with an inferiority complex, and a set of plush animals (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland and Jordan Peele, Us) stitched together at the hand to provide some fine comedic support. The plush toys especially get in some howlingly funny bits, as much as the film made kids in my screening laugh I don’t think I’ve heard adults laugh louder or longer in a movie in quite some time. If there’s one toy that gets short shrift, it’s Buzz (Tim Allen) who has some late-breaking action but is sidelined in the memorable moments field for much of the film.

Watching the movie, I was reminded again at just how incredible the advancements Pixar has made. The animation here is photo-realistic at times and quite stunning to behold. Some animals look real and most vistas appear as if they have been snapped right from a postcard. If you look at the original Toy Story now you can see where the animation has room to grow but comparing that to this is showing how a company has evolved fantastically over the years.  Couple that with action sequences crafted with clockwork precision that best any number of live-action summer blockbusters and you have a movie that has laser eye for detail down to the most minuscule of properties.

I’m hearing again this will be the last Toy Story film and the creators have definitely given us another ending that feels like it…but never count out another adventure if the story is right. It took nine years for this fourth film to be made and the release date comes almost five years after it was originally announced. So, it’s obvious the studio took its time in creating the film and releasing it only when it was perfected. Let’s hope if there is another tale to be told, the same care is taken when Woody, Buzz, and Bo Peep ride again.

The Silver Bullet ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty-and-the-Beast-2017-logo-beauty-and-the-beast-2017-38814471-1360-572

Synopsis: An adaptation of the classic fairy-tale about a monstrous prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Release Date: March 17, 2017

Thoughts: Gosh darn it, there’s no denying that Disney is sure on a winning streak with re-purposing their animated fairy-tale canon as live action films. After the winning success of 2015’s Cinderella and the eye-popping visuals of The Jungle Book, Disney is unleashing the big guns in 2017 with their production of Beauty and the Beast.  Already well represented in the flesh in a Broadway show and touring companies around the world, the stars are aligning for this to be one beauty of a movie. This first teaser gave me legit goosebumps, mostly due to the creative use of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s haunting score and the briefest of first looks at Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) as Belle and the voices of Ian McKellen (The Wolverine) and Ewan McGregor (August: Osage County) as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively.  In future trailers I’m sure we’ll see more of Dan Stevens (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) as Beast, Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) as Gaston, Audra McDonald (Ricki and the Flash) as Garderobe, Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) as Mrs. Potts, and Kevin Kline (The Big Chill) as Maurice.  Directed by Bill Condon (Mr. Holmes), I’m praying it’s light on gimmicky CGI and retains the heart that made the animated film such an instant classic.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Jungle Book (2016)

jungle_book

Synopsis: An orphan boy is raised in the jungle with the help of a pack of wolves, a bear, and a black panther.

Release Date: April 15, 2016

Thoughts: You’ve got to hand it to Disney, while other studios are remaking/rebooting their films (sometimes cannibalizing them along the way), the House of Mouse is taking an interesting approach and remaking their classic animated endeavors as larger than life live-action spectacles. With the success of the rides turned movies like Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (let’s forget The Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears happened, shall we?) and a splendid live-action of Cinderella, it’s looking like it is going to become a yearly event to see cartoons come to life. First up is The Jungle Book and it’s a challenging property I wouldn’t have thought Disney would take on so early but the first look presented here feels like an exciting take on the much loved story of a Mowgli and his jungle friends. Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and featuring the voices of Bill Murray (Aloha), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3), and Christopher Walken (Jersey Boys), it’s a wild gamble that I’m sure Disney is hoping will pay off…especially with a live-action Beauty and the Beast being prepped for 2017.