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Happy Disney+ day, everyone!
I know it wasn’t available worldwide on November 12 but it was here in Canada, which just happened to be our travel day home from Disney World where we saw lots of evidence that Disney is putting some major marketing power behind this streaming service. The Mandalorian, the Star Wars episodic series that debuted today, was publicized everywhere with flags and posters and merch – particularly in Hollywood Studios where Galaxy’s Edge calls home. And alongside standard Lady and Tramp stuffed animals were new models, based on the live-action dogs featured in Disney+’s original programming.
Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) gives his Darling wife (Kiersey Clemons) a puppy for Christmas, a lovely and darling little cocker spaniel she names Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson) who immediately lives up to the moniker. She enjoys a very cosy life nestled between her two favourite humans and can’t imagine life getting any better. But then she meets a street dog who goes by a lot of names but we’ll call Tramp (Justin Theroux). Tramp reveals that life is about to change and not for the better – Darling is about to have a baby, and everyone knows that when baby moves in, the dog moves out. Lady doesn’t want to believe it but of course when baby arrives, she is no longer the centre of her masters’ universe.
Sean and I had just suffered through the inevitable travel day that always puts an unfortunate end on every vacation (waking up at 4:15am is always brutal, particularly when poor Sean was up past midnight purchasing a whole additional suitcase to hold all the souvenirs we bought our niece and nephews, but since we had a relatively easy commute home via a direct flight that came in under 3 hours and Matt had 2 connections and hours of delays resulting in 14 hours of travel, it’s rude to complain…the snow, however, was morally depleting no matter how long you’d traveled to reach it). No matter how tired we are when we walk in that door, we have 4 little pups who celebrate our homecoming like we just won the Superbowl or walked on the moon. If they had access to ticker tape, we’d be hip-deep.
That said, we were cuddled in bed with our 4 4-legged friends (that’s 20 legs if you count ours) by mid-afternoon and were soon watching the newest and finest that Disney+ had to offer. I always find it hard to be away from my pups and this vacation was particularly rough because on our very first day away our dog sitter texted me pictures of bloody stool and I worried for 10 days straight (everyone seems fine). Anyway, I’d been lonesome for my little loves and this movie made me quite emotional.
Perhaps it lacks the sparkle that the first one had, and I’m not 100% convinced real-looking talking dogs (or any animals) is a good ideas, but it’s here, but it’s kind of sweet and it’s a safe family pick. Plus, keeping the antique setting is a lovely excuse for the most sumptuous sets and costumes.
And with some interesting voice work by Tessa Thomspon, a delightfully cast Sam Elliott, and a racist song replaced by a new ditty co-written by Janelle Monae. This updated Lady and The Tramp isn’t a huge hit but it isn’t a miss either – I think it’s worth a watch, especially for dog lovers who just can’t help themselves.
Harriet Tubman was born a slave named Araminta “Minty” Ross in Maryland. She suffered all the usual indignities and violence inflicted upon slaves, but one injury in particular left her with permanent brain damage, which gave her, as she described “premonitions from God.”
According to a legal will, she was supposed to have been freed long ago, but when she eventually went to plead with her owner, it wasn’t for her own freedom but that of her unborn child. She had married a freeman who visited her frequently, but he didn’t want to have a baby who would be born a slave, and I suppose you can guess how her masters answered her.
So that’s when Harriet got it in her head to run away. I mean, it must have been in every slave’s head every day of their lives, but finding the courage and the opportunity to do it was prohibitive. Runaways were brought back and tortured before being put to death, to set an example for others. It would have been a powerful motivator for staying put, to say nothing of having to leave behind your loved ones. Of course, when your loved ones can be sold away without notice, it is perhaps not such a big risk after all.
At any rate, Harriet did leave one night, alone. She traveled to Philadelphia on foot, 145km, evading slave catchers and bounty hunters, hiding by day, guided by the north star at night. Eventually she made it to freedom: she survived.
In the film, Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives in Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and conductor on the Underground Railroad. He is a meticulous record-keeper and Harriet’s is but one of many, many entries in his logbook. She then meets Marie (Janelle Monae), a black woman born free, who owns the rooming house where Harriet lives. Marie teaches Harriet a different kind of life. Of course, posing as a free woman is an improvement, but not exactly without risks or complications. People are still looking for her. Harriet could spend her whole life looking over her shoulder. But she doesn’t.
Instead, Harriet chooses not only to look back, but to go back. To rescue family, friends, and in fact dozens if not hundreds of strangers. To go back for others, and free them as well. If it’s hard enough to understand how someone could endure so much pain and torment, and then find the courage to escape, it’s darn near impossible to picture the kind of person who would risk it all to go back. But she does.
In fact, she went back 13 times over a period of 11 years, though each trip only put her more at risk. She became an esteemed conductor on the Underground Railroad, never having lost a soul on her midnight runs. Every successful conductor had a network of friends and allies, and though some were white abolitionists whose participation was a great risk, there were also many black people along her route who risked much more but did it anyway.
It’s about time someone put Harriet Tubman up on the big screen for all to admire, and director Kasi Lemmons seems to understand the weight of her responsibility. The incredible thing is, she chooses to do it without the usual trappings of the slave film. Of course, those are largely understood by now, and their threat is still heavily felt. Instead Lemmons focuses on Harriet’s repeated runs, and though their repetition does make each one feel less of a thrill, their sheer number begins to impress. Harriet is not a slavery movie. Harriet is a freedom movie. It is a showcase for resilience, and hope. It’s also a reminder of the kind of impact one single person can have.
To that end, Cynthia Erivo shines as its star. Harriet may not be a complete biopic, but it is a fascinating origin story for one of history’s greatest super heroes. If Erivo isn’t talked about at Oscar time, it would be a crime.
Uglyville is home to some fairly upbeat if misshapen dolls – they’re missing eyes or teeth or limbs – but most seem content. All but one doll, Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), who dreams of going to the “big world” and living with a child who will love her. She gets together a band of misfits (truly the only kind of band that CAN be assembled on this island of misfit toys by any other name), including Lucky Bat (Leehom Wang), Wage (Wanda Sykes), Babo (Gabriel Iglesias) and Uglydog (Pitbull), and together they stumble upon the Institute of Perfection, the last stop between the best dolls and their forever homes.
The Institute of Perfection is run by Lou (Nick Jonas), an alarmingly blonde-haired, blue eyed bastion of excellence. He gets all the beautiful dolls ready to run the gauntlet, the final hurdle to be cleared before being placed in a home. Moxy and gang find these perfect dolls to be outwardly pretty but inwardly ugly – they soundly and definitively and in many cases quite cruelly reject Moxy and friends for looking different.
From the very first frame, you know where this film is headed. We’re teaching kids to embrace differences and to accept imperfections. Sounds nice. But this movie takes an uncomfortably long time getting there and goes through too many catchy songs about the importance of beauty on the way. It makes you really start to sweat all the Hitler references.
In the end, the Uglydolls meet a perfect doll named Mandy (Janelle Monae) who (you may want to sit down for this) wears glasses. And through that hideous physical defect they’re able to bond and together they realize that not only is being weird okay, maybe it’s even possible for a kid to love you that way, in all your freaky glory.
UglyDolls plays like a watered down Toy Story, appealing to only the very youngest of children (my 5 year old and 7 year old nephews preferred to pick up live-action Dumbo over this for a recent car trip, but it was Sean’s recommendation of Shazam that really impressed, which meant we just spent 10 days sequestered in a cottage with kids who couldn’t go more than 5 minutes without singing “Lightning with my hands! Lightning with my hands!” and requesting this new band they’ve just been introduced to through the movie – Queen). Its fuzzy feltness and bouquet of primary colours should serve as a warning that this movie is nothing but saccharine and if you have any other requirements from a film then this one is not for you.
Mark Hogancamp was beaten nearly to death by 5 men outside a bar where he’d casually mentioned enjoying wearing women’s shoes. When he awoke from his coma 9 days later, every memory of his life over the last 38 years was gone. Just gone. His life was changed forever. Formerly a talented artist and illustrator, Mark could no longer wield a pencil well enough to write his own name. Not that he remembered his art anyway; looking at his own stuff was no different than looking at a stranger’s. Imagine how sad, how profoundly sad it would make you to know that you had been capable of such beauty and now you don’t even have the memories.
So that broken man is who Mark is when we first meet him in Welcome to Marwen. He is crippled with PTSD. He lives in fear. He’s over-medicating. Mark (Steve Carell) has an ingenious coping mechanism, though. Unable to do art the way he used to, his innate abilities are leaking out however they can, and now Mark is a photographer, and his subjects are quite unusual. Hogancamp has constructed a village in his backyard, a village called Marwen, which is inhabited by dolls. He sets the dolls up in war-time scenarios, and each one represents someone special to him in real life, namely the women who care for him. Living among Marwen’s women is Captain Hogie, the stand-in for Hogancamp, a tough soldier who lives his life fearlessly. And so he should, because as invariably as he is captured and beaten by the Nazis hiding on the outskirts of town, his lovely ladies come to his rescue, time and time again.
Carell has made it his business to understand the outsider, and Mark is more wounded, more vulnerable than most. But he’s not defeated. He’s fighting back in small ways, in brave ways. He is a complex man and Carell embraces that. I’m just not sure his director does. Robert Zemeckis prefers to stay away from the tricky stuff. He’s made a feel-good movie where perseverance triumphs over adversity. I suppose that’s nice, but I’m not sure it’s a good fit for the story, or true to Hogancamp’s experience. Likewise, Zemeckis seems puzzled about how to treat the women of Marwen. The movie incorporates some truly incredible animated sequences as we see the dolls come to life and act out the scenarios that Hogancamp devises for them. The animation is informed by motion-capture and it looks really, really cool. Voiced by some very talented actresses (Janelle Monae, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Eiza González, Gwendoline Christie), the dolls are absolute bad-asses. In real life, Hogancamp’s photography of them has resulted in gallery shows around the world. But they’re also comfort items. The dolls are how he deals with his fear, they’re talismans, protectors, therapeutic symbols of safety and security. Zemeckis seems more interested in treating them like sex dolls, which is a creepy impulse, and one that is not reflected in the dialogue, so it’s like the story disagrees between what it shows us and what it tells us, and that discord can be quite distracting.
I think the actors involved in this project strove for an authenticy that perhaps Zemeckis overlooked, or failed to value. Which is too bad, because this movie had real oddball possibilities. It’s still a pretty incredible story, and I don’t mean to discourage anyone from seeing it, because Hogancamp’s story is worth being told (although there is a book and a documentary that may do it better). The way Hogancamp’s experience informs and describes trauma is unique and real and complicated, but I don’t think Zemeckis trusts us to get it, or else he doesn’t get it himself. He gets such a stiffie from all his special effects that he robs the movie of what actually may have made it special. We shouldn’t be dissecting a man’s trauma just to give it the syrupy Hollywood treatment. There was an opportunity to be real, to be honest, to show life’s ugliness and be brave and bold about it, but Zemeckis took the road too frequently traveled. He played it safe, and disappointing, and the movie just can’t live up to the truth.
America, 1960s: the country is still very much divided by colour. Martin Luther King Jr is marching, JFK appears to be listening, but black people are still drinking for different fountains, still sitting at the back of the bus. Meanwhile, at NASA, about 2 dozen black women are working their fingers to the bone (actually, working their brains dry – they’re not labourers, they’re computers in the time before computers were machines). Does NASA pay them equally? Not by a long shot. Treat them fairly? Not so much. Promote them? Never. But hire them they must because there’s a space race on with the Russians, and they can’t afford not to hire the best and the brightest no matter the skin colour encasing the brains.
These women, buried deep in the basement of a building far away from the main action, are fighting prejudice on two levels: race and gender. Hidden Figures follows 3 of them, real-life women who helped launch John Glen into space. Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) does the work of a supervisor without the title or the pay. Not only does she get shit done, she intuits that the future of her computing department is changing and she takes it upon herself to learn the language of the future – and International Business Machine is being installed painstakingly at NASA, and she’ll be the one to learn its code, and teach it to others. Mary Jackson (Monae) has an engineer’s talent and mind but she can’t get her credentials to match because the only education opportunity is at an all-white school. Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a single mother as well as a mathematical genius. When NASA discovers her talent she works overtime to help invent the new math necessary for John Glenn’s orbit while still drinking out of the “colored” coffee pot.
Hidden Figures is conventional story-telling all the way, relating the story of ground-breaking women in the least ground-breaking way possible. But it’s crowd-pleasing: it had the audience applauding. These women are so inspirational that it would be hard to mess up the story, and Hidden Figures manages not to stand in its own way. At the Toronto International Film Festival this fall, Pharrell Williams, who collaborated on the score with Hans Zimmer, gave a concert of all the original music he’d worked on for the film. I worried that he might overshadow the film, but in fact his music fits right in very comfortably, establishing the time period in a pop-heavy way.
The cast is stacked with heavy-hitters. Octavia Spencer is nominated for a Golden Globe for her role, and she’s as good as we know she can be. But I was impressed with Taraji P. Henson, who plays a vamp and a bit of a diva with the press, and an outspoken, strong contender on Empire, but in Hidden Figures managed to play bookish and humble with a shy strength and subversive self-confidence.
Hidden Figures is a feel-good tribute; a story that was meant to be told. The script is a charmer, and surprisingly humourous, and the three leads infuse it with power. Sure it’s a bit run-of-the-mill, but it’s also a positive way to start the new year, and a movie you won’t be able to resist.
Moonlight is the quietest tour de force I’ve probably ever seen. Never have I rooted for a drug dealer in this way, and never have I sympathized so much with a kid who wanted to follow in that drug dealer’s footsteps. Moonlight is spectacular in its simplicity. It is also entirely different than the movie I expected.
That difference comes in its approach. This is a coming-of-age story focused on a likeable outsider named Chiron who has been dealt a terrible hand. His father is absent, his mother is barely there, and he’s a walking bully target. He’s called soft but he’s got an obvious inner strength, and I loved him right from the start. He didn’t have to say a word to get me on his side. Which is fortunate because he’s not much of a talker.
Chiron’s adolescence is the subject of three tightly focused vignettes. It’s a wonderful storytelling choice that perfectly explains Chiron’s choices as he grows up, without having to engage in any exposition. Moonlight is brave in many ways but to me it’s the choice to let us figure things out for ourselves that makes this film great. It makes the journey more fulfilling, the experience more real, and greatly increases our empathy for Chiron. Moonlight helps us understand Chiron to a degree that I would not have thought possible. Regardless of your race, wealth, or sexual orientation, we are all a lot like Chiron.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins somehow enhances that commonality at every turn, and also finds beauty everywhere he takes us. His efforts are supported by wonderful performances from top to bottom. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes each take remarkable turns as Chiron and the extent to which they feel like the same person is incredible. Mahershala Ali is not the only other actor deserving of mention (the supporting cast is consistently great) but for my money his performance as the aforementioned drug dealer shapes Chiron’s life and makes us understand his growth to a degree that is virtually unmatched in film.
Moonlight has been on my watch list for a long time. It was well worth the wait and deserves every bit of acclaim coming its way. It’s perfect from start to finish. Go see it!