Dumplin’


Beauty isn’t always just skin-deep.

(2018) Dramedy (NetflixDanielle MacDonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Luke Benward, Georgie Flores, Dove Cameron, Harold Perrineau, Kathy Najimy, Ginger Minj, Hillary Begley, Sam Pancake, Dan Finnerty, Molly McNearney, Tian Richards, Ryan Dinning, Andrew Fletcher, Oscar Gale, Ariana Guerra, Julia Denton, Kaye Singleton. Directed by Anne Fletcher

 

I have to admit, I didn’t have high hope for this Netflix film. For one thing, it’s adapted from a Young Adult novel, a genre that doesn’t exactly scream sophistication. For another thing, the plot sounded pretty pedestrian – and spoiler alert, it is.

And yet, I wound up pleasantly surprised. Danielle MacDonald (Patti Cake$) stars as Willowdean Dickson, a plus-sized gal whose mom Rosie (Aniston) was once a Miss Teen Bluebonnet back in ’91 which is where she pretty much peaked. Rosie runs that same pageant now, the oldest one in Texas. Willowdean, who she called Dumplin’ as a child (a nickname that Willowdean hates with a passion) was essentially raised by her Aunt Lucy (Begley), a fellow plus-sized gal who worships at the altar of Dolly Parton (a religion that Willowdean now shares, along with her bestest friend Ellen (Rush). But Lucy has passed away, forcing Rosie and Willowdean to have to rely on each other, which simply isn’t something they’re used to.

Fed up with feeling alienated because of her size, Willowdean decides to enter the pageant herself, despite the obvious fact that she doesn’t conform to the body type that most pageant girls tend to have. Inspired by her example, Ellen also enlists along with fellow plus-sizer Millie (Baillio) and militant punk feminist Hannah (Taylor-Klaus). The four girls intend to make a statement by virtue of being on the inside, although what exactly they expect to accomplish is a mystery, including Willowdean herself.

The movie is actually pretty warm-hearted and sweet-natured. Willowdean is aided in her subversive act by a group of Dolly Parton female impersonators; she also is dealing with the affections of teen hottie Bo (Benward) with whom Willowdean works at a local diner. It is telling, however, that there is no real villain here; even Rosie basically loves her daughter and wants the best for her. It’s just that Rosie can’t get past Willowdean’s size, nor the notion that fat people can actually be happy.

The movie works well because it takes basic teenage girl issues and tackles them head-on, handling the subject with a rare sensitivity and without taking the temptation to make Willowdean an object of ridicule. She may be full of insecurities – what teenage girl isn’t? – but at the end of the day, Willowdean was taught well by her aunt to love herself for who she is and not because of who she could potentially be.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the real highlight here is MacDonald, who in two short years became a very respected actress who rather than using her size as comic fodder, instead embraces it and allows others to embrace it with her. I’m not kidding when I say that Danielle MacDonald has the talent to become an important actress over the next couple of decades or so, so long as she steers away from movies that use her size as a weapon to heap score on the plus-sized people of the world.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly effective and just offbeat enough to be interesting. MacDonald is absolutely delightful here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a few young adult movie tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, body shaming and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dolly Parton herself doesn’t appear in the film, she did write and record several new songs for it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Little Miss Sunshine
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bumblebee

Country: Portraits of an American Sound


Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

(2015) Documentary (Arclight) Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Lyle Lovett, Waylon Jennings, Roy Clark, Henry Diltz, Sandi Spika Burchetta, Charley Pride, Brenda Lee, Tanya Tucker, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Lorrie Morgan, Rosanne Cash, Ronnie Milsap, Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers, Holly Williams, Jim Halsey, Raeann Rubenstein, Larry Gatlin, Dr. Diane Pecknold. Directed by Steven Kochones

 

Country music, whether or not you are a fan of it, has to be considered America’s soundtrack. Sure, rock and roll is just as American an invention but whereas rock became more of a world music, country has remained an essentially American sound. It is the music of rural America, the music of the working man (and woman) and one which has always held American values close to its beating heart.

Throughout its history, country music has been not only a music but a style and photographs have helped to not only capture that style but export it. There have been eras when country performers wore dazzling rhinestone-studded costumes onstage; other eras they have been dressed in their Sunday best and then there have been times when their attire of choice has been that of the cowboy – or the working farmer. There have even been times when country stars wore the latest fashions.

All of it has been captured by some of the great photographers of their era. Names like Henry Diltz, Les Leverett, Raeann Rubenstein, Leigh Weiner, Henry Horenstein and Michael Wilson have captured country’s biggest and shiniest stars in their lens. Through those lens, they didn’t just capture moments on stage, or posed publicity stills (although they did that too), but they captured the essence of who these artists were (and are). Through these pictures, we got to know the faces behind the voices and in a sense, got to know them as living, breathing people and not just talented musicians and singers.

Through the auspices of the Annenberg Space for Photography (a Los Angeles-based museum for the pictorial art and an offshoot of the Annenberg Foundation, a charitable institution that supports the arts) comes this documentary gathering some of not only the most iconic photographs in the history of country music but also a variety of images that help illustrate the rich history of country as well as its ongoing contribution to American culture.

Veteran documentarian Kochones (who founded Arclight, a distributor of terrific documentaries as well as some non-fiction films) has a wealth of material to draw from but that is very much a double edged sword; the hour and a half running time is not nearly enough. It isn’t often that I see a film in which I wish it was longer but that is the case here. The material could easily have filled a mini-series and maybe it should have. One of the biggest drawbacks to this particular film is that it feels rushed. While some of the stars and subjects get an adequate treatment, others feel almost glossed over. Perhaps a mini-series would have given the filmmakers time and space to give all of the subjects the attention they deserved.

Although there are a galaxy of country stars interviewed here it is the photographs that are justifiably the real center of attention. Some of them are amazing, like Johnny Clash flipping a very intense bird at the camera, a fresh-faced young Dolly Parton at the beginning of her career (and there’s a star I wish they had spent time interviewing) and the Carter Family looking stiff and formal like Civil War-era photographs taken sixty years later.

Lyle Lovett talks eloquently about country music being less about songs than about stories and so it is with the stars who sing those songs. They all are stories in their own right with their own personalities and their own experiences. They bring those to each and every song that they sing. The machinery of the business can sometimes in its zeal to manufacture an image forget that the stories that got these talents to their attention are what attract the fans the most; perhaps that’s a bit naïve on my part but I think that it’s true. Image is important in ANY musical genre of course – it’s a kind of shorthand that invites the listener in and allows them to be captured by the music – but it’s not the be-all and end-all. These images however not only define those stars but in many ways allow those stars to be themselves for all to see.

This is definitely going to appeal to all true fans of country music, although they might not be satisfied with the snippets of songs that are played, but even non-fans will find this very educational. I am more an admirer of country than a lover of it – like rap music, it doesn’t speak to me as much as rock and roll does – but even someone who isn’t a true believer such as myself can respect the relationship the stars have with their fans and at the hard work and talent displayed not only by the musicians but by the photographers who created the images that helped establish them as stars.

REASONS TO GO: The presentation is high quality. The images depicted here are an absolute treasure that will delight fans young and old of the genre.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit rushed; it might have been better served as a mini-series.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since 1974 the Grand Ole Opry has been performed in the Grand Ole Opry House; previous to that it was held at the Ryman Auditorium; during the winter months the Opry returns to the Ryman for three months November through January.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonGoogle Play, iTunes, Vimeo, VuduYouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Mize and  the Bakersfield Sound
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Gold

Gnomeo and Juliet


Gnomeo & Juliet

Featherstone engages in a little light bondage with Gnomeo and Juliet.

(2011) Animated Feature (Touchstone) Starring the voices of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Jim Cummings, Ozzy Osbourne, Hulk Hogan, Julie Walters, Dolly Parton, Stephen Merchant, Richard Wilson. Directed by Kelly Asbury

If the play’s the thing, then Romeo and Juliet may just be THE thing. Perhaps the most famous play ever written, it has been told and re-told in all sorts of cinematic methods, from musicals (West Side Story) to epics (Zeffirelli’s 1968 version) to mistakes (Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 MTV-hip version). However, I can’t think of any version that is quite as bizarro as this one.

Mr. Montague (Wilson) and Miss Capulet (Waters) live at 2B and Not 2B Verona Avenue. They have had a petty rivalry going on over the years stemming from their gardens. This resentment has carried over to their garden furniture, particularly the garden gnomes that populate their yards. On the Montague side, Lord Redbrick (Caine) rules the red gnomes; on the Capulet, Lady Bluebury (Smith) is the boss.

Gnomeo (McAvoy) is son of Lady Bluebury; Juliet (Blunt) daughter of Lord Redbrick. The endless rivalry that goes on, largely in the form of lawnmower races between Gnomeo and Tybalt (Statham) which Tybalt cheats in order to win, has been escalating. Juliet, tired of being cooped up on a pedestal watched over by Nanette (Jensen), a frog fountain at the behest of Juliet’s overprotective dad, wants to contribute and be productive; she spies a rare orchid in the hothouse of a neighboring yard whose house has fallen into disrepair. She means to nab it for the Reds in order to put the red yard ahead of the blue.

In the meantime, Gnomeo means to exact revenge for Tybalt’s destruction of the Blue lawnmower. He and his cousin Benny (Lucas) go on a stealth mission to the Red yard, meaning to lay down some graffiti but Benny gets a bit carried away and the two are discovered. They flee and Gnomeo is forced to take shelter in the abandoned yard.

It is of course at that moment that Juliet, dressed as a ninja (okay, wearing one of Mr. Montague’s old socks) enters the abandoned yard to nab the orchid. Gnomeo sees her go after it and in the way of guys everywhere, once he sees somebody wants something he wants it too. The two of them compete for the flower in a series of martial arts-like moves until they get a gander at each other’s faces. That’s it – instant love. However, they fall into a convenient pond, washing off Gnomeo’s camouflage and washing away Juliet’s sock and they realize that they are from opposing sides.

That doesn’t mean much to true love however and they arrange a meeting in the neutral yard the next day. There they meet Featherstone (Cummings), a plastic pink flamingo who has languished in the storage shed since the owners of the house divorced and went their separate ways years ago. He is pleased to see them, particularly when they discover his missing leg. He is all about love, particularly since his own love was taken away from him in the divorce.

The two are definitely in love and life could certainly be idyllic, particularly if they follow through with their plans to run away and start a new garden in the dilapidated old yard. However, Tybalt is getting out of control and the war between red and blue is escalating and frankly, red is winning. However, the blue side looks to even things out with something called the Terrafirminator. The more out of control things get, the more likely that a tragic ending is  inevitable.

This is one of those nice occasions where my expectations were exceeded. I didn’t think much of the trailer; the animation isn’t really ground-breaking and while the whole concept is different to say the least, it is sufficiently out there that sight unseen it left me with a kind of wait-and-see attitude. Quite frankly, Da Queen was far more jazzed to see this than I was. I’m very glad that she insisted we go see it.

This is more than pretty good. There are many sly Shakespearean references (“Out! Damn spot!” refers not to a bloodstain but to a wayward hound) as well as some amazing stunt casting, like metal god Ozzie Osbourne as a sweet porcelain deer, and Patrick Stewart as a grumpy William Shakespeare. Hulk Hogan narrates an online ad for the Terrafirminator and Dolly Parton adds a turn as the starter at the lawnmower race (with an appropriately blonde and large-breasted gnome as her onscreen alter ego).  

Director Kelly Asbury previously worked on such disparate projects as Shrek 2 and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron.  He shows a deft hand here and despite an army of writers, lends a Monty Python-esque air to the proceedings.

Elton John was the executive producer of the project and most of the incidental music is themes from his hit songs done with an orchestra. That does make for a nice trip down memory lane, not to mention he contributes two new original songs (one a duet with Lady Gaga) but I would have preferred a little more original music – maybe another song or two – to balance the retreads.  

There aren’t nearly the pop culture references so prevalent in most animated features in the post-Shrek era which is kind of refreshing. It has a decidedly English feel, like the Aardman films (like Chicken Run and Flushed Away). In short, this is something completely different from the animated ranks, so much so that Disney chose to release it through their Touchstone imprint rather than the parent company where they usually place their animated features. That may backfire on them – I suspect that the film might have benefitted from the Disney marketing and brand name, but still in all don’t let its lack stop you – this is a fine animated feature that will delight children and adults alike.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful Shakespeare in-jokes replace pop culture references. Nicely cast (and drawn) cameos.

REASONS TO STAY: Music recycles Elton John themes ad infinitum – some more original music and songs would have been welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart have both played Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men movies; Stewart in the first three (and the Wolverine spin-off) and McAvoy in the upcoming X-Men: First Class.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the 3D aspect may work better in the theater, but this one looks just as good at home methinks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Other End of the Line