Lady and the Tramp 2019 ***

lady-and-the-tramp-224a4ccAndrew Bujalski is something of a mercurial figure in American cinema; his Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation created a new genre ( mumblecore) and launched him towards such surprising indie fare as the alarming Computer Chess, a seemingly genial look at retro-computing style the concludes with a final scene which is genuine nightmare fodder. 2018’s Support The Girls was his best to date, a humanist account of women fighting a hard-scrabble existence in a Hooters-style eatery, leading critical figures such as myself to sign up for daily updates as to what Bujalski was up to.

Somehow, that next project is the live action version of Lady and the Tramp that appeared with a remarkable lack of fanfare on Disney+. There is form for this kind of decision; Noah Baumbach brought considerable wit to Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and Bujalski’s aspirational, working class heroes are a good fit for the original 1955 animation. Some have suggested that Disney have dumped this $60 million project on their streaming service like a tv movie, but that’s no more accurate that saying that Netflix ‘dumped’ The Irishman; these are loss leaders. On watching Lady and the Tramp, it’s hard to imagine it doing the business of Lion King, Aladdin or other 2019 hits, but it’s still a prestige project with points to commend it.

Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons play Jim and Darling; he gifts her a dog, Lady, voiced by Tessa Thompson, who falls for Tramp, a diamond in the rough voiced by Justin Theroux. Tramp’s back-story, as to how he was abandoned by his owners, is genuinely heart-breaking, and chimes with Lady’s understanding that when the baby comes, the dog goes. This is a bitter-sweet thematic for a children’s film, and Lady and the Tramp balances both worlds, with angry dog-catchers, nasty-minded dogs (Clancy Brown) and restrictive mussels like the one Tramp sorts out for Lady. Other retro-items like the Siamese cats which stitch up poor Lady have been altered to avoid accusations of racism, but the less said about Ashley Jensen’s stereotyped Scottish terrier the better; some forms of racism die harder than others.

Lady and the Tramp’s reputation hinges largely on the animation, and the designs for the dogs here are the problem; neither Lady or the Tramp look quite as good as their animated selves, and the musical elements are inconsistent compared to Lion King or Aladdin’s full scores. But there are points to relish, like Ken Jeong, Adrian Martinez and Arturo Castro, all of who project exactly the right larger than life quality for live-action Disney. And the classic restaurant scene still works, with Lady and the Tramp sharing a spaghetti dinner under the auspices of master-chef and Oscar-winner F Murray Abraham. For Bujalski, co-writing with Kari Granlund, it’s a time-passer, hopefully on the way to more personal projects, but there’s enough elements consistent with his other works to make this worth a look for fans of his downtrodden style.

https://www.disneyplus.com

Basil the Great Mouse Detective 1986 ****

basilPerhaps it’s due to the deep dive into the Finnish suicide/BDSM scene that my reviewing duties led me to yesterday, but this seemed like a good time to enter a more familiar world and that world, dear reader, is the world of mice detectives. Sure, Stuart Little always had some problems to solve, and I was impressed by meeting of minds featured in Tom and Jerry meet Sherlock Holmes, but ultimately the greatest mouse detective is Basil, and a opening trial offer on Disney + provided this critic with a welcome opportunity to examine this seminal story in the annals of the shrew shamus.

Disney’s financial and creative issues are well documented in the 1980’s, and the failure of The Black Cauldron to revive the studio’s animation fortunes is often seen as the end of a chapter that re-opens with The Little Mermaid. But Basil The Great Mouse Detective was something of a hit, not enough to revitalise the studio, but certainly identifiable as a turning point in retrospect. The John Musker and Ron Clements team that worked on Mermaid and Aladdin found their feet here, and the lively style that suffused these films starts here.

Based on Evie Tutus and Paul Galcone’s book Basil of Baker Street, this is the story of Basil (Barrie Ingham), a mouse detective who lives in 221b Baker Street, and emulates the more famous denizen of the property; he has his own Watson, freshly returned from a mouse war in Afghanistan, and his own mystery to solve, a kidnapped mouse who may have fallen foul of Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price). Those wags who like to question the details of fictional world will have a ball with Basil’s London; there are mouse speak-easys, mouse prostitutes, a sexy mouse song sung by Melissa Manchester (Let Me Be Good to You) and mouse drugs; Watson is knocked for six by a solution put in his beer while he and Holmes are tracking down Rattigan. Their investigation leads them to their foe, and there’s an elaborate and highly impressive climax involving airships and a fight in and around the face of Big Ben. But the scenes before, with Basil taking control of an android mouse Queen of England to give Ratigan a public spanking, are as funny as the climax is thrilling.

Basil is never less than enjoyable, but there’s a few narrative flourishes, like the wonderfully elaborate manner of execution prepared for Holmes, that look forwards to the best comic exaggerations of the later Disney style. And in Ratigan’s batty assistant Fidget, there’s a truly iconic foe; wonderfully characterised, Fidget feels like the fore-runner of Iago and Abu in Aladdin, a side-kick whose expressiveness doubles-down on the main emotion of the scene, and he also feels like an ancestor of Bartok the bat in Don Bluth’s Anastasia.

This is arguably the most underrated Disney film, a secret success, sewing the seeds for a revitalisation of a creative identity that leads directly to the Disney+ brand. And no film that features Vincent Price as an evil villain can be dismissed; his saturnine voice works wonders here, and the scene in which he announces his tax plans for the country’s future at the expense of the weak and elderly is a neat indication of the moral folly of rampant capitalism, exactly the kind of trenchant political satire the kids today need to hear.

Little Hands/ Les Petites Mains 2019 ****

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Another powder-keg element of 2019 has been the on-going unrest in France; the country associated with the idea of revolution seemed to be tearing itself apart in a series of riots and a growing awareness of social disparity. Writer/director Rémi Allier’ short film won a Cesar award in 2019, and capturing a mood before such fissures made headline news; nevertheless, Little Hands does an effective job of situating itself firmly in the hot-spot between the have’s and the have-not’s.

Specifically, it’s the story of an industrial dispute that goes out of hand; a chemical factory is being closed, and a desperate employee decides to escalate the struggle between workers and management. Bruno (Jan Hammenecker) impulsively grabs for the child of his boss, and takes little Leo (Émile Moulron) as hostage. As his phone rings, and the realisation of the hopelessness of his action hits him, Bruno finds an unexpected connection which motivates him to make a dramatic decision.

Little Hands is shot with a string sense of moment; we see things tightly from Leo’s point of view, the zip of Bruno’s jacket flailing as he runs with the child. And that tightness of angle is vital in understanding that Little Hands is not an irresponsible call to violence, as in film de jour Joker, but the opposite, a plea for understanding. How do we explain the extremity of our actions to young people, who don’t know or understand the sense of grievance that we carry? Little Hands is only 15 minutes long, but communicates a commendably to-the-point answer to the question.

Rémi Allier may only be a young film-maker, but there’s real skill and insight in this short; there’s a trailer below, and hopefully we’ll have a link to the whole film once the film’s race is run on the festival and awards circuit.

Bumblebee 2018 ***

bumblebee-2018-001-hailee-steinfeld-bumblebeeHow about a film about a towering yellow robot learning to love The Smiths? That might sound great, but Bumblebee is also a Transformers movie, so you have to sit through a lot of rubbish about Autobots and Decepticons to get to the funny bits. This is the first modern Transformers movie without Michael Bay directing, and they’ve clearly rethought the running time (not three hours long!), the usual sexism, racism and massive dumps of exposition are missing (a female writer!), and the whole film is more of a throwback towards 80’s movies like ET or Mac and Me. Pop star Hailie Steinfeld is the lucky girl who buys a VW Beetle from a scrapyard only to find it has magical powers like Herbie. It’s an Autobot on the run from Decepticons, two muscle cars which also transform into huge robots. Wrestler John Cena leads the army forces trying to get in the way of the big robot battle. Bumblebee is a cute film, not as loud or bombastic as the other Transfomers movies, and actually kind of small and charming in comparison. 80’s music is slathered on, complete with pop-culture references to ALF, The Breakfast Club and somehow, The Smiths.

Gifted 2017 ****

 Cat-rescuing is a noble profession; from Ripley in Alien onwards, it’s become such a cliché that there’s even a screenwriting manual named after the conceit. When Frank Adler (Chris Evans) rescues the cat belonging to his niece Mary (McKenna Grace) towards the end of Mark Webb’s Gifted, it’s a crucial plot-point and a feel-good moment in a slight but affecting film about children, education and family. Mary’s mother is dead by the start of Gifted’s narrative, and Frank has been raising her despite the antipathy of her grandmother Evelyn(Lindsay Duncan).  Once she starts at school, Mary’s gift for maths attracts the attention of her teacher (Jenny Slate), but Frank is reluctant to feed this particular fire, since Mary’s mother was a maths prodigy who ultimately killed herself. Gifted plays with a tug-of-war between Frank and Evelyn that’s settled in a very satisfactory way; throw in support from Octavia Spencer, and Gifted is a strong package of thoughtful entertainment for those seeking a restrained slice of drama.

Mary Poppins Returns 2018 ****

Reviving a beloved fifty-year old property was always going to be a tough ask for Disney; Mary Poppins Returns succeeds primarily because Emily Blunt is perfect casting to take over the umbrella from Julie Andrews; there’s a mix of starch and sweetness here that’s ideal to recapture the character, although Blunt’s Poppins is notably different, particularly in a sexualised way. Rob Marshall’s film doubles down on the musical-hall styling of the original, but the fresh emphasis on innuendo; Blunt’s performance of The Cover is Not The Book shifts somewhat towards Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Otherwise, there’s a familiar mix of 2D animation, sentiment, and of course every child loves a trenchant analysis of the banking system. Nefarious disaster capitalist Colin Firth has the Banks family (Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer) over a barrel unless they can recover precious deeds. Mary Poppins Returns scrupulously adheres to the original film, right down to longeuers, general over-length and a lack of pace. But the music is fine, and Blunt revitalises the character for a new generation of nanny-seeking children of all ages.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children 2016 ***

miss-peregrine-640x370Hailed as a return to form for Tim Burton, Miss Peregrine is more like a return to familiar ground; Burton’s obsessions are never buried deep in his work, and it’s not like he was dampening his style down for Big Eyes, Frankenweenie or Dark Shadows. But this YA adaptation of the book by Ransom Riggs has a more confident and epic scope as it relates the story of a young boy Jake (Asa Butterfield) who is won over by the many gifted children of Miss Peregrine (Evan Green). There’s some complex, time-shifting story-telling here, and a strange visual atmosphere involving the British coastal resort of Blackpool. A strong supporting cast including Rupert Everett and Judi Dench don’t get to contribute much, but Green is as good as ever, and Burton seems to have remembered what his audience like to see; channeling his off-kilter style into a compelling narrative.

The Maze Runner 2014 ***

THE MAZE RUNNERA breezy take on James Dashner’s Young Adult novel, The Maze Runner is a sci-fi drama that racks up a decent amount of tension around an abstract idea. Thomas (Dylan O’Brian) wakes up to find himself in a community of teenagers, whose only exit from their woodlands camp it through a maze populated by large, alien beasts. Thomas battles to be recognised as a leader in a volatile group including Will Poulter and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and the scenes in The Maze are well-staged and pretty graphic for young audiences. The finals is disappointing in that it sets up a franchise in a rather obviously open-ended way, but the high production values of Wes Ball’s film make it a cut above most studio product for kids.

Little Children 2006 ****

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Writer/director Todd Field followed up In The Bedroom with an equally dark but just as compelling drama, featuring Kate Winslet as Massachusetts mother Sarah who embarks on clandestine afternoon meetings with Brad (Patrick Wilson). Their initially chaste meetings, while their children play at a local park, gives way to a torrid romance, despite their family ties, and engenders a secret that affects the way they see the community around them. That disaffection becomes important as Brad’s friend Larry is suspicious of local outcast Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), who lives with his mother and has a complex set of mental health issues relation to women and young girls in particular. How the community treat Ronnie becomes mixed up with Sarah and Brad’s covert affair, and final few scenes of Little Children are intense and powerful as deception leads to consequences. Little Children is melodramatic at times, but the 134 minute length is justified by the eloquent way that Field draws out the mores of the suburban community, and engenders sympathy for Sarah and Brad and their fight against the common denominator of loveless marriages. A woman’s picture in the old style, Little Children is an accomplished adult drama.

http://www.amazon.com/Little-Children-Kate-Winslet/dp/B003OPYOR8/ref=sr_1_1_ha?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1399799087&sr=1-1&keywords=little+children

I Wish 2011 ***

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Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda scored an international sleeper with this charming film about wishes and dreams in a decidedly modern world. Koichi (Koki Maeda) has lost touch with his brother due to the separation of his parents; when a new bullet-train network in Japan is unveiled, he is told that the precise moment when two trains pass each other is the moment that dreams can come true; he enlists a group of friends to make the trek to the appointed spot in the hope that he can reunite his family. Whimsical, yet pragmatic, I Wish is a realistic fantasy of family life and brotherhood, a Stand By Me for the 21st century.