MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018)

December 17, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The 1964 classic Disney film MARY POPPINS is much beloved and has been shared across generations for more than 50 years. It won 5 Oscars on 13 nominations, and shifted Julie Andrews from a Broadway star to an international movie star, as she won the Oscar for Best Actress while becoming the ideal nanny for most every boy and girl. Rarely do reboots, remakes, or sequels to the classics make much of a dent with the movie-going public, but it’s likely director Rob Marshall’s (CHICAGO, INTO THE WOODS) film will be an exception. Marshall balances nostalgia with contemporary, and benefits from a marvelous successor to the Mary Poppins role … Emily Blunt.

The film opens in low-key fashion as we follow Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) through town as he performs his lamplighting duties singing the melancholic “Underneath the Lovely London Sky”. It’s actually a bit of a dry opening that may have some impatient kids wondering why their parents dragged them to see this. Soon after, we are at the familiar 17 Cherry Tree Lane – the Banks’ home – easily recognizable from the original film. We meet grown up siblings Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). Jane is a labor organizer following in her mom’s footsteps, and Michael is a struggling artist and widower raising 3 kids. He has taken a teller job at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his dad (now deceased) worked, but mostly he’s an emotional wreck. In fact, the only way to save the family home from foreclosure is with proof of his father’s bank shares … something the evil new Bank President, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), conspires to prevent.

It’s at this point that the kids’ popcorn should just about be gone, so it’s fortunate that our beloved nanny makes her timely appearance … literally floating (with practically perfect posture) into the park where Georgie (an adorable Joel Dawson) and lamplighter Jack are flying a very recognizable kite. Jack, having been an apprentice under Bert the Chimney Sweep, is quite familiar with the significance of Mary Poppins’ arrival. Back on Cherry Tree Lane, Michael and Jane are shocked to see their childhood nanny back in the house, and Michael’s two spunky twins Anabel (Pixie Davies) and John (Nathanael Saleh) aren’t sure what to make of this mysterious visitor.

Director Marshall wisely utilizes the template from the original film, so many of the subsequent sequences have a familiar and cozy feel to them. Mary Poppins’ “Off we go” kicks off a fantastical bathtub adventure and leads to the first of many smile-inducing, visually spectacular moments. A broken porcelain bowl guides us to a beautiful hand-drawn animation (from Walt Disney Studios) sequence with horse-drawn carriage, penguins, and more. Meryl Streep performs “Turning Turtle” in her topsy-turvy studio, and there is an extended (perhaps a bit too long) dance sequence featuring Jack and the other lamplighters singing “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”.

Julie Walters appears as the Banks’ housekeeper and David Warner is Admiral Boom, the Banks’ canon-firing neighbor; however it’s two cameos that will really hit home with the older viewers: Angela Landsbury (not in the original) is the balloon lady singing “Nowhere to Go but Up”, and the remarkable Dick Van Dyke (a huge part of the original) plays an elderly Mr. Dawes Jr from the bank – and even performs a dance routine atop a desk. All of the actors perform admirably, yet this is clearly Emily Blunt’s movie. She shines as the practically perfect nanny, whether debating with her umbrella, digging in her mystical baggage, filling heads with ‘stuff and nonsense’, teaching life lessons to those in need, or singing solo and with others. It’s a wonderful performance and she becomes Mary Poppins for a new generation.

Director Marshall co-wrote the story and screenplay with David Magee and John DeLuca, and they have created a worthy sequel (a quite high standard) from P.L. Travers’ original books that is delightful and a joy to watch. The group of original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman serve the story fine, but the one downside to the film is that none of the new songs are as catchy or memorable as those of the Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert) from 54 years ago. They won Oscars for Best Score and Song (“Chim Chim Che-ree”), and left us singing others such as “Spoon Full of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and of course, “Supercalifragilistic”. These new songs including “Can You Imagine That”, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”, “A Cover is not the Book”, “Nowhere to Go but Up” all contribute to the story and to the viewer’s enjoyment, but none leave us singing or humming as we depart the theatre.

This is film where those behind-the-scenes are crucial to its success. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) and Editor Wyatt Smith both are at the top of their game, and Costume Designer Sandy Powell delivers stunners, not just for the singing nanny, but for all characters. The core of the story remains rediscovering the magic in life, and finding joy in each other – and this sequel also provides the adventures to match the original. It’s simultaneously familiar and fresh, which is key to a successful follow up to a beloved classic. Director Marshall has signed on to Disney’s live action THE LITTLE MERMAID, but it’s with MARY POPPINS RETURNS where he has delivered a film that is practically perfect in every way.

watch the trailer:

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BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. That VOICE! During my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to see many of rock’s greatest bands live in concert, including: The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and AC/DC. Each of these bands are amazing, but no other concert combined the energy, showmanship and musicianship as Queen (two different tours). And certainly no other lead singer donned a Harlequin leotard … only Freddie Mercury could make that look seem natural.

This is such an odd movie, and one that is somewhat difficult to discuss. It’s billed as an “inspiring story”, though one wonders how self-destructive living, an acrimonious band break-up, and dying young of AIDS could be considered inspiring. It’s not supposed to be a biopic, but the vast majority of the screen time is devoted to Freddie Mercury. And to really confound us, the film kind of drags (pun possibly intended) during the personal story times … and then explodes with greatness during the band and live performance segments.

Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury, and he perfectly captures the swagger and strut of one of rock’s greatest theatrical showmen. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsari in Zanzibar, and the film shows us his conservative family and time spent working as a baggage handler at Heathrow. Of course, things change quickly once he joins up with guitarist Brian May (played here by Gwylim Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, MARY SHELLEY). When bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) is added, Queen is born.

With a story and script from two Oscar nominated writers, Peter Morgan (THE QUEEN, ironically) and Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), it’s surprising that much of the film is downright slow – especially the bits with frenemy Paul (Allen Leach). Perhaps this is more a factor of the issues with the director’s chair, where Bryan Singer is credited despite being fired during production. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel filled in until Dexter Fletcher (next year’s Elton John biopic ROCKETMAN) was hired to complete the film. Lucy Boynton (so good in SING STREET) holds her own as Mercury’s wife and friend Mary Austin, and Mike Myers plays producer Ray Foster (with a tip of the cap to WAYNE’S WORLD). Other supporting work comes courtesy of Dickie Beau as influential DJ Kenny Everett, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander and Aaron McCusker.

The 20th Century Fox opening fanfare has its own Queen version, and is not to be missed as the film begins. Of course, it’s the infamous 1985 Live Aid performance that is the film’s highlight and one that will leave every audience member pumped up, smiling, and singing along. It’s a stunning sequence on a custom built Wembley Stadium stage, and it helps erase much of the tedium of the film’s non-band scenes. Erasing any doubt as to whether the film is worth the price of addition … hearing that VOICE at full volume on today’s theatrical sound systems. Killer Queen.

watch the trailer:


THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

August 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to his stellar film ROOM (Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Best Director) is based on Sarah Waters graphic novel, and adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL). Very early on, the film succeeds in giving viewers that “I have a bad feeling” sensation … usually a very good sign for films in this genre.

The always excellent Domhnall Gleeson stars as Faraday, the local town doctor called out to check on the lone remaining housekeeper at Hundreds Hall. For a couple hundred years, it’s been the Ayres family home, and though, in its past, a glorious fixture among Britain’s elite, the home, grounds and family themselves are all now little more than a distant memory of their once great selves. When he was a mere lad, Faraday’s mum had served on staff, and his memories of the grand palace are jolted by the sight of its current dilapidated state.

The Ayres family now consists of Charlotte Rampling as the matriarch who has yet to move past the death of her beloved daughter Susan so many years ago; Will Poulter as Roderick, the son who was disfigured and maimed during the war; and Ruth Wilson as surviving daughter Caroline, who seems to have surrendered any semblance of life in order to care for her mother, brother, and home … each in various stages of ill-repair.

This is a strange family who mostly keep to themselves, well, except for Faraday who seems drawn to the family … or is it the house? Even his romantic interest in Caroline could be seen as an excuse to regularly return to the house. His flashbacks to childhood and a festival held on the estate grounds provide glimpses of his connection, but with Gleeson’s mostly reserved façade, we never really know what’s going on in his head.

Part haunted house, part ghost story, and part psychological thriller; however, it’s really not fully any of these. There seems to be a missing link – something for us to grab hold of as viewers. The film is wonderfully cloaked in dread and looks fabulous – replete with ominous music and a creepy old mansion. Unfortunately those things are accompanied by the slowest build up in cinematic history. “A snail’s pace” is too kind as a description. The film is very well acted, but horror films and thrillers need more than atmosphere, otherwise frustration sets in with the viewer. There is little doubt this played much better on the pages of Ms. Waters’ book.

watch the trailer:


BLAZE (2018)

August 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” “I don’t want to be a star, I wants to be a legend.” The first quote comes from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and the second is drawled by Blaze Foley as he snuggles with his muse and lover in the back of a pickup truck. We can imagine the first quote inspired many stories over the years by those who knew Blaze, and it might also have served as a driving force for writer/director Ethan Hawke as he crafted this graceful tribute to an underappreciated songwriter and his too short life.

Mr. Hawke is a 2-time Oscar nominee as an actor, and his best known previous turn as director was for CHELSEA WALLS (2001). He (a distant relative of Tennessee Williams) has also been twice Oscar nominated as a writer (BEFORE SUNSET, BEFORE MIDNIGHT), and his movies are often music related or influenced. His latest is a biopic of a mostly unrecognized country-folk artist, and Hawke collaborated with Sybil Rosen to adapt her memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley”. It’s Ms. Rosen who shared the bed of that pickup referenced in the first paragraph above.

Ben Dickey plays Blaze and Alia Shawkat plays Sybil. Not only does Dickey capture the spirit and sound of Foley’s music, but the scenes with Blaze and Sybil as a couple are some of the most touching and realistic relationship sequences we’ve seen on screen. We understand their connection … and their disconnection. It’s proof that two people can be both ‘made for each other’ and ‘wrong for each other’. Director Hawke utilizes different time periods, as well as a framing device in the form of a radio interview. None of this works in traditional biopic manner as the interview features the great troubadour and musical poet Townes Van Zandt (played exceptionally well by Charlie Sexton) recollecting the times (both good and bad) he spent with his friend Blaze. He’s joined by another Foley friend and collaborator, Zee (Josh Hamilton) as the two color in the blanks to ensure the legendary status desired by Blaze. The DJ is voiced by Ethan Hawke, who is only seen from behind.

In addition to the radio interview and the relationship with Sybil, we also have multiple scenes of Blaze’s final live show being recorded at the old Austin Outhouse. The nearly two hours of music and philosophizing were turned into a record release that remains (nearly 30 years later) a mesmerizing listen. These 3 very distinct pieces fit together to bring Blaze into focus as both a songwriter and troubled man – one who found himself in too many fights and, ultimately, on the wrong end of a gunshot in 1989.

Philosophy and homespun wisdom and catchphrases flow from Blaze during his songs and even when he’s just hanging with his buddies or Sybil. The real Sybil Rosen plays her own mother in a scene where Blaze meets the parents, and there is a touching moment in the film where Blaze plays for his estranged dad (a wonderful, albeit brief performance from Kris Kristofferson), the founder of The Singing Fuller Family where Blaze got his musical start. It’s these kind of touches that elevate the film into a must see whether you are familiar with Blaze Foley or not.

BLAZE FOLEY: DUCT TAPE MESSIAH is a 2011 documentary that would nicely compliment Mr. Hawke’s film, although this version contains much more humor – including cameos by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell as Zephyr Records executives. With Louis Black (founder of SXSW and a former film class TA of yours truly) as an Executive Producer, and songs by Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt, this little gem is likely to awaken viewers to a bygone era of music that tends to be remembered only for Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff and Merle.

watch the trailer:


40 YEARS IN THE MAKING: THE MAGIC MUSIC MOVIE (2018, doc)

August 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Yes, I readily admit to being spoiled. Attending university in Austin, Texas meant (cheap) access to some truly amazing bands and music. Some of these performers went on to various levels of success, while others just kind of vanished. Because of this, I easily relate to Lee Aronsohn’s nostalgic and emotional mission to document the history of his favorite band, Magic Music, and pull off a nearly miraculous reunion concert some 40 years after the band broke up. Sure, his roots are Boulder, Colorado in the early 1970’s, but the connection he feels is universal.

When an early title card informs us that the film’s soundtrack consists of various unreleased songs from 1970-76, you will likely wonder why you should have any interest in a local Colorado band from five decades ago – especially one that never even had a recording contract. When we hear the music for the first time, we begin to understand. It’s a mixture of The Byrds, The Hollies, and CSNY with a dose of Grateful Dead. These hippies produced some beautiful harmonies! And hippies they were. Name another band that was formed at Pygmy Farms, a naturalistic living commune. The band members often lived in school buses in the mountains, only returning to Boulder to play music – often on the college campus.

The history of the band is fairly interesting, and over the years, it was made up of 7-8 different guys with nicknames like Tode, Flatbush, Poonah, and Spoons. They were the opening act for both Jesse Colin Young and Cat Stevens, and turned down their shot at a record deal because they steadfastly refused to add a drummer. Of course, 40 years later, they admit that “drums are pretty cool”. A total lack of business sense stood in the way of the wide world hearing their music. We’ve often known of bands breaking up due to a battle of egos, and this one is no different. After the breakup in 1976, the band members spread out across North America, their music only a distant memory to those who had heard them play live.

Enter TV writer/producer Lee Aronsohn, known for two mega-hits, “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men”. When Mr. Aronsohn became a father, he found himself singing Magic Music songs to his young daughter. Since he could never escape the music of his college years, he decided to see if he could recreate it. This is as much a personal journey for Aronsohn as it is a history of a band that never “made” it. His efforts to track down the band and arrange for the 2015 reunion concert are impressive and quite emotional. While you are likely unfamiliar with Magic Music, there is a certain pleasure and satisfaction in imagining one’s favorite band getting back together for one last jam. It’s obvious this meant a great deal to Mr. Aronsohn, and it’s a reminder of the power of music … and the magic.

watch the trailer:


MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018)

July 19, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 10 years since director Phyllida Lloyd presented the crowd-pleasing MAMMA MIA! movie. It was a box office hit (over $600 million worldwide) and was, for a few years, the highest grossing musical of all-time. Most importantly, it was extremely entertaining and a joyous cinematic romp for viewers. This year’s sequel is directed by Ol Parker (THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL and husband to actress Thandie Newton), and though the melancholy is slathered on a bit too thick, it also fulfills its number one priority – entertaining the fans.

The story begins with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) putting the final touches on the house-turned-hotel in preparation for the upcoming Grand Opening. It’s named Hotel Bella Donna in honor of Sophie’s mother (Meryl Streep). What looks to be a straight-forward story surprises us with a flashback to Donna’s 1979 graduation, which features not only the first song-and-dance number “When I Kissed the Teacher”, but also the first of two ABBA cameos … Bjorn Ulvaeus as a professor. The young Donna is played brilliantly by Lily James, and she effortlessly captures the free-spiritedness that led to the conundrum of the first movie – 3 possible dads for Sophie.

Those 3 dads return not only as Pierce Brosnan (Sam), Stellan Skarsgard (Bill), and Colin Firth (Harry), but also as Jeremy Irvine (young Sam), Josh Dylan (young Bill), and Hugh Skinner (young Harry). In fact, most of the run time is dedicated to the backstory of these characters and how they first met as youngsters. Each has a segment (and song) with young Harry featured in “Waterloo” accompanied by Benny Andersson (ABBA cameo #2) on piano. Young Bill is the charming sailor who saves the day for Donna, while young Sam assists her with saving a storm-shaken horse (kind of humorous since Mr. Irvine starred in WAR HORSE).

Also back are Dominic Cooper as Sky, Sophie’s true love, who can’t decide between romance and career, and Donna’s life-long friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), who are also part of the flashback as Jessica Keenan Wynn (excellent as young Tanya) and Alexa Davies (as young Rosie). New to the cast are Celia Imrie in the graduation number, Andy Garcia as the hotel manager, and drawing the biggest applause of all … Cher as Sophie’s grandmother (and as my viewing partner commented, an early peek at what Lady Gaga will look like as a grandma)! It’s best if you experience Cher for yourself, and it should be noted that this is her first big screen appearance since BURLESQUE in 2010.

Of course, the songs are key and many of the ABBA numbers from the first movie are featured again this time. In particular, “Dancing Queen” is a nautical standout, and “Fernando” is a show-stopper. While it may not be quite as raucous as the first, it’s a treat watching Lily James, and there is a wonderful blending of “old” and “new” in the finale. The only real question remaining is, did the casting director do the math before casting Cher (age 72) as Meryl Streep’s (age 69) mother?

*As a special treat, there is a “most interesting” cameo near the end of the film

watch the trailer:


YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968, animation) revisited

July 7, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “It was 50 years ago, Sgt Pepper taught the band to play”. OK, I know that’s not the lyric, but 50 fits better than 20 when we are talking about the latest re-mastered 4K version of the classic animated YELLOW SUBMARINE from The Beatles. Originally released in 1968, the story is by Lee Minoff and is based on the Lennon-McCartney song of the title. Additional dialogue and story elements were contributed by (at least) four other writers, including Erich Segal of LOVE STORY fame, and after all these years, the film not only remains quite entertaining, it has attained a certain legendary status.

Directed by George Dunning (animation producer), also instrumental in The Beatles “unaffiliated” animated TV series of the same era, the film requires a bit of historical perspective to bring the full picture into focus. This was the year before Woodstock, and the Beatles were no longer the four fresh faced lads from Liverpool. Their songs had not only changed the music world, it had changed them as individuals. Much of their charm had turned to cynicism, and drug use was prevalent. The band reluctantly agreed to allow production of this animated movie for the sole purpose of fulfilling their 3 film contract with United Artist (A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, HELP!). Other than the songs and a closing segment, they were barely involved … not even voicing their own characters.

The true legacy is what we see on screen, and after 50 years, it remains magical. The psychedelic pop art visuals were unlike anything most of us had ever seen. The colors and images seemed to explode in vibrancy and come alive before our eyes. Some have mistakenly credited pop artist Peter Max as the man behind the colorful images, and fans of Monty Python (especially Terry Gilliam) will easily recognize the stylistic influence. Sharp ears will pick up references to Beatles lyrics not included on the soundtrack, and much of the dialogue captures the droll tone of Lennon or the whimsy of McCartney. However, we never stop thinking about how much more effective this could have been with John, Paul, George and Ringo providing the voices.

An extended opening sequence provides the basics of the story – The Blue Meanies are coming (!) and they intend to expunge all music and color from Pepperland. The only way to stop them is with Beatles music. Once we ‘understand’ the story, we hear Ringo’s vocals kick off the title song over the opening credits. Through the adventure we meet some fascinating and creative characters, see an abundance of green apples (the logo for Apple Records), play spot the icon (with actual photographs), laugh along with Ringo and his “hole” in the pocket, and catch the essence of Beatles wit, though the dialogue is sometimes a bit muddled.

Of course, beyond the animation, it’s the music that matters. Two songs that stand out because of the corresponding animation are “Eleanor Rigby” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  Some of the 11 Beatles songs mish-mashed from various albums include:  “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “All You Need is Love”, “All Together Now”, and “When I’m Sixty-Four”. There are also a couple of George Harrison songs that aren’t otherwise available, and a personal favorite, “Hey Bulldog”, which has its own sequence, and was originally only included in the UK movie version. We also notice the beautiful orchestra music composed by long-time Beatles producer George Martin.

At the time it was released, hippies would claim the movie looks better when you’re stoned, and it’s likely for those folks, that sentiment held true for most things in life. The message of the day and one present in much of the Beatles’ work, is that of Love. It’s a message that rings true today, and also part of why the film works so well for both kids and adults. Although we may be a bit disappointed that the fab four don’t provide the voices of their characters, the stunning visuals and classic songs make this a film for everyone. The short live action sequence at the end where we see the real John, Paul, George and Ringo is simply the cherry on top … or is that an Apple?

watch the (U.S.) trailer: