Thunder Road (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jim Cummings writes, directs, and acts in “Thunder Road,” a comedy walking a tightrope. It tells the story of a cop named Jim whose mother has just passed away. We meet him making a speech about her, like her passion for dancing and her love for Bruce Springsteen, but the longer he speaks it becomes all the more apparent that much of what he says is actually about himself. In the middle of his wild performance, we wonder if there is something seriously wrong with the man. Is this his own way of grieving? Is this actually his personality? Is he on drugs? The speech culminates when he dances—without music since the CD player died—right in front of his mother’s coffin. It is from this moment that it is crystal clear: The work is going to be a minefield of comic-cringe moments. I loved nearly every second of it.
But the opening scene does not hint at the depth the movie is about to dive into. Sure, it gives us a quick portrait of a ridiculous person who may or may not have deep psychological issues. But Jim is actually a good man, well-meaning, and a dedicated father to his young daughter (Kendal Farr). It’s just that there is often a disconnect between his thoughts and what comes out of his mouth. He has anger issues. The entire film is composed to seeing Jim being presented with a problem, how he reacts to it initially, and how deals with it sooner or later. It is riotously funny and yet at times it becomes surprisingly moving at a drop of a hat.
Here is a work that embraces a type of comedy that is incredibly difficult to pull off. When done wrong, even just remotely wrong, I am able to detect its stench with ease. Here is a dark tragi-comedy done right. It is unafraid to place the subject under a microscope so we can note his flaws and redeeming qualities; so we can relate and empathize; so we can appreciate why he thinks the way he does and behave the way he does. There is no flashback to childhood or any of the easy tropes. There is only a determined march forward filled with mistakes, regrets, and redemption. Cummings has tapped onto something here which makes me look forward to what else he has yet to offer as an actor, writer, and director.
We also come to meet others within Jim’s outer circle—because his inner circle doesn’t exist. There is Crystal, a fourth-grader who does not appear to enjoy spending time with her father. She is not at all receptive to her father’s efforts. We meet a possible sixteen-year-old version of her (Jacqueline Doke)—or what Jim thinks, in his own mental gymnastics, of Crystal’s eventual future should Jim not continue to be a strong presence in his daughter’s life. Another important person in Jim’s life is his wife Roz (Jocelyn DeBoer). Jim and Roz have been living apart (Roz has a new beau). Every encounter they have is ugly and unpleasant—but not without well-observed humor; we believe that these two have tried and failed to have a life together. Now, they just cannot stand one another—even for the sake of their own child.
Perhaps most interesting, however, one who sort of qualifies as Jim’s best friend is fellow cop Nate (Nican Robinson). To reveal details about their friendship would do the film a disservice. But there is a beautiful, quiet moment when Nate simply looks at his friend, who is currently going through the biggest challenges of his life, and recognizes his value with complete clarity. The camera holds still, unblinking, patient. Unlike every other scene, there is no joke. Just an honest personal moment of one human being loving another because that’s just how it should be.
Winnie the Pooh (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) woke up, his stomach grumbled with great hunger. He knew the perfect cure: delicious, gooey honey. But when he got to the kitchen, all the honey jars were empty. He thought he’d ask his friends if they had some to spare. In the forest, he stumbled upon Eeyore (Bud Luckey) who claimed that his tail was missing. Concerned about their friend, Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), Owl (Craig Ferguson), Piglet (Travis Oates), Tigger (Cummings), Rabbit (Tom Kenny), Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez), and Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall) held a contest: whoever could find an object that would best replace Eeyore’s tail would win a jar of honey. “Winnie the Pooh,” based on the works by A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard, brought out the inner child in me. Granted, it isn’t particularly difficult because I’m easily amused by corny childish jokes and puns but the film was on a constant creative overdrive. Coming into it, I hadn’t seen a single episode of the television show nor have I sat through prior Pooh features. (I’ve read a picture book or two.) It really surprised me because the dialogue and the images rapidly reached an effortless comedic synergy. An image could be as simple as Pooh staring at a pinecone and weighing the reasons how or how it couldn’t work as Eeyore’s tail and I would catch myself smiling at how adorable it was. I loved the film because the characters reminded me of my friends and I. Each had a distinct personality and I was glad all of them were given a chance to shine. My favorite scene was when Owl suggested that whoever acquired the best tail replacement ought to receive some sort of remuneration for his or her trouble. Meanwhile, Pooh leaned into Piglet and whispered, “What are we supposed to renumber?” It caught me off-guard with how ingenious it was. There I was watching, essentially, a children’s movie but I lost track of that fact. That moment nudged me, without feeling distracted or detached, of its nature. Most kids (and, I reckon, most adults) won’t know the meaning of “remuneration.” They defined it but it didn’t feel like being in a classroom and learning words because the joke’s punchline came before the definition. The picture also had a great lesson about friendship. Eventually, the animals ended up in a big hole with no means of escape. Piglet was the only one who could rescue them. That scene could easily have been annoying or unnecessary. After all, Owl had the ability to fly. The writers ignored Owl’s innate ability because there was a lesson about patience. In meaningful friendships, when a friend messes up or does things that make no sense, it’s important that we don’t make them feel less than. I think it’s a great message for kids (for everyone, really) not to say things like, “You’re so dumb!” or “You’re so stupid!” As someone who’s worked with children, such put-downs, harmless as they may seem at the time, do germinate anger and self-loathing. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall, “Winnie the Pooh” was a delightful animated film. It’s one of those movies I can show my future kids and I wouldn’t mind watching it with them.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s return to 2-D animation, was about an extremely hardworking girl named Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) who dreamt of owning a restaurant ever since she was a little girl. But it seemed as though her dream was always out of reach because of issues like not having enough money so she made a deal with a prince trapped in a frog’s body (Bruno Campos). That is, she would kiss him in exchange for a full payment for her restaurant. But it all went wrong when, immediately after she kissed the frog, she found herself trapped in a frog’s body as well. I liked this movie but I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would because the middle portion of the picture was a little bit too messy. It felt like the main characters were in a swamp for so long that the story felt stagnant. Other than the scene when they finally reached a blind old lady’s house, there wasn’t much pay off during the whole ordeal. I thought it had a fantastic beginning, especially the opening scene when our heroine and her rich best friend (Jennifer Cody) were introduced as little girls, and a strong last twenty minutes when the prince, Tiana and a few friends they met along the way (Michael-Leon Wooley as a musical alligator and Jim Cummings as an energetic firefly) finally got out of the swamp. The villian named Dr. Facilier or Shadow Man (Keith David) could also have been much more menacing (he very much reminded me of Jafar from “Aladdin”) considering he knew so much about the dark arts. While he did have his cruel moments, especially toward the end when he subjected the lead character into an illusion, I felt like he was a bit one-dimensional. I did, however, enjoy the musical numbers which consisted of jazz and soul mixed in old school Disney style. Not only were they catchy, the lyrics were quite insightful. “The Princess and the Frog,” directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, was similar to Disney classics not only in terms of animation but the lessons embedded in those stories. Yes, it was nice to finally have an African-American Disney princess but I think it’s more than about color. The writers could have easily made the character as dumb (or “unaware” if one prefers to sugarcoat it) as Snow White (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”) or as reckless (though very charming) as Ariel (“The Little Mermaid”). Instead, Tiana is a very modern princess who chose to have jobs so she could be that much closer to reaching her dreams. This movie may not be as good as those Disney classics but the princess in this film is actually one of my favorites because she’s more realistic than most of them combined.