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David Morse — A Podcast Tribute

Posted on February 27, 2021 at 4:09 pm

Copyright Jen Johans 2021

I love a chance to pay tribute to under-sung Hollywood figures, especially utility infielders who show up in movie after movie, genre after genre, handling every role with precision and commitment. David Morse fits that description perfectly, and it was a pleasure to join my friend and fellow critic Jen Johans and novelist William Boyle on Jen’s Watch With Jen podcast to talk about some of our favorite Morse performances, including “Inside Moves,” “The Slaughter Rule,” “Diary of a City Priest,” “The Indian Runner,” and more.

Jen’s articles about Morse are here and here.

Tom and Jerry

Posted on February 26, 2021 at 3:59 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG PG for rude humor, cartoon violence, and brief language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Nudity/ Sex: Some potty humor
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic mayhem
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 26, 2021

Copyright 2021 Warner Bros.
Making a live action movie about the cartoon characters Tom (the cat) and Jerry (the mouse) was a bad idea. These “let’s see what we can dig up from the intellectual property hiding in our files” reboots usually end up as lifeless as we can expect when they are inspired by balance sheets instead of characters. But “Tom and Jerry” misses even that low bar, dispiriting in its waste of the iconic cartoon characters in the title, a usually reliable director, and some of the most talented performers in movies today.

It may be impossible to make a feature film out of a one-joke set-up that more likely to be sustained in a seven-minute animated short. Certainly, if that question ever goes to court, this movie will be introduced as evidence.

A refresher: Tom wants to catch Jerry and Jerry outsmarts him. Think Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote without access to Acme explosives and anvils. But while Road Runner is being chased around spare western landscapes, Tom and Jerry often create chaos and mayhem indoors. So a lot of Tom and Jerry is things falling over and crashing and smashing.

None of that is especially well staged here. The mayhem/slapstick scenes seem to have been set up based on what they could convey with technology given the interaction between two-dimensional cartoon characters and physical reality, rather than what is involving or engaging. Slapstick has its charms, but it requires a precision of timing that allows us to appreciate the destruction before moving on to the next faceplant. And even though they are 2D cartoon characters, and thus instantly restored to perfect condition after every encounter, setting it in a 3D environment hampers some of the ebullience of the forces of id.

The biggest mistake, though, is expecting, even demanding, more affection from the audience for the characters than it earns. There doesn’t have to be a likable character to root for in a movie, but it helps.

Tom plays the piano in Central Park, busking to make money (what is he going to use it for?), pretending to be blind to make even more from guilt and pity. Jerry comes along, covers his sign with one of his own, and starts collecting from the crowd until Tom sees him and the crowd sees that he can see. Chases ensue.

Meanwhile, Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) loses one job because Tom crashes into her bike and spills all the clean laundry she is delivering (which is not even in a bag, but okay). And so she gets another by lying about her credentials. So 20 minutes in, two of our main characters are cheaters.

Kayla’s new job is as a temp at a super-luxurious hotel which needs support for a very high-profile, no expenses spared wedding of two mega-celebrities. (Note to Hollywood: It is time to stop trying to seem relevant by creating characters who are influencers.) Kayla is there to help make everything go smoothly, even when the groom wants elephants and military-grade drones, when the bride’s ring goes missing, and when Jerry is spotted in the kitchen. At the hotel, she has a rival who sees her as a threat and gets help from a ditsy bell girl.

Kayla brings in Tom to help catch Jerry. It does not go well. That’s it. That’s the movie.

The excellent cast does its best, and believably interacts with the animated characters. But no one can make the dreary dialogue sound smart or even interesting. The problem is not that the animated characters are 2D. The problem is that the script is 1D.

Parents should know that this film includes comic violence and mayhem including fire, chases, and crashes. There is brief potty humor.

Family discussion: Why did Kayla lie? Why couldn’t Ben and Preeta tell each other the truth? How did Kayla try to fix the problems she created?

If you like this, try: the original Tom and Jerry cartoons and the Road Runner cartoons.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Posted on February 25, 2021 at 5:03 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong language, n-word
Nudity/ Sex: Nudity, sexual situations
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse and addiction
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence including domestic violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 26, 2021

Copyright 2020 Lee Daniels Entertainment
Andra Day’s performance as Billie Holiday is never less than dazzling, one of those breakthrough moments that divide our lives as audience into before and after. The vulnerability, the courage, the utter commitment of her acting here, her first role, is simply stunning.

And nothing less could do for the portrayal of one of the most formidable performers of the 20th century. This movie could not work unless we saw what the audiences of the 40s and 50s saw, a singer who could break your heart and make you grateful for it.

In “Lady Sings the Blues,” one diva played another, with Diana Ross also outstanding in a traditionally-structured biopic, from childhood through her career, her struggles with drugs and alcohol, and abusive relationships. A recent documentary, “Billie,” used archival materials assembled in the 1970s by a biographer who died before she could complete the project. It has valuable insights from people who knew Holiday and saw her perform.

This movie, from Lee Daniels, is different because its focus is on just one part of Holiday’s life. Like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” this is the story of betrayal, and a conflicted source who cared about the person he was informing on.

Billie Holiday attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover because of a song. It was “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, first published in 1937 as a poem called “Bitter Fruit.” He later added music. The “stronge fruit” hanging in the trees in the song’s lyrics are the dead bodies of Black people who have been lynched, murdered by a racist mob. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

Holiday’s 1939 performance of the song is now a recognized classic and is included in the National Recording Registry, which “highlights the richness of the nation’s audio legacy.” But in 1939 lynching was considered so acceptable by government and media and culture they actually sold postcards showing bodies hanging. This was 15 years before the murder of Emmitt Till, a Black teenager from the North, led to calls for reform. And as of this writing, Congress has still been unable to pass an anti-lynching bill. So, telling the truth about lynching in a song was considered dangerous, and Hoover wanted to stop her.

One of the first Black FBI agents (“Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher) is assigned to her case. The pressure he is under is almost as crushing as the pressure on Holiday. He has the all-but-impossible task of proving himself to skeptical and often racist colleagues. And he cannot help siding with what Holiday is doing and being mesmerized by her as well.

The storyline is murky at times. It is also soapy and melodramatic, but face it, Holiday’s life was as soapy and melodramatic as her songs. Through it all Day manages to be as magnetic as the formidable woman and powerful entertainer she is portraying. At any given moment, Day has to be precise about where Holiday is on her various journeys in and out of addiction to various substances, including the men in her life, and she makes it work every time. She shows us Holiday’s toughness and her vulnerability. And, with the help of glorious costumes from Paolo Nieddu (the hats!), she owns the screen. She owns her story.

Parents should know that this movie includes alcohol and drug abuse, nudity and sexual situations, domestic abuse, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Should the government get involved in artists’ songs, movies, plays, books, or tweets? What could Jimmy have done differently?

If you like this, try: “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Billie,” and “Judas and the Black Messiah”

New From Pixar: Trailer for Luca

Posted on February 25, 2021 at 9:21 am

Disney and Pixar’s “Luca” is a coming-of-age story about a boy sharing summer adventures with a newfound best friend. But their fun is threatened by a secret: they are sea monsters from another world just below the water’s surface. Directed by Enrico Casarosa (“La Luna”) and produced by Andrea Warren (“Lava,” “Cars 3”), “Luca” opens in U.S. theaters June 18, 2021. © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

There’s a lovely surprise in this trailer for Pixar’s “Luca,” coming this summer. Can’t wait.