January 5, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Grumpy people are everywhere these days. In fact, two-time Oscar winner and all-around likable guy Tom Hanks (FORREST GUMP, PHILADELPHIA) may be the only one who catches us off-guard when he’s grumpy. Here, Hanks plays Otto, the neighborhood curmudgeon who patrols the community daily drenched in full-fledged annoyance over topics like pets, recycling, traffic, and parking. In fact, Otto is annoyed by most people and just about everything they do (and these days, who amongst us isn’t).

The film is an American remake of the Oscar nominated Swedish film, A MAN CALLED OVE (2015), which featured a terrific titular performance from Rolf Lassgard. Both films have been adapted from Fredrik Backman’s novel, “A Man Called Ove”, with writer-director Hannes Holm behind the 2015 version, and screenwriter David Magee (LIFE OF PI, 2012) and director Marc Forster driving this one. Mr. Forster has previously directed some interesting and diverse movies including, MONSTER’S BALL (2001), FINDING NEVERLAND (2004), STRANGER THAN FICTION (2006), THE KITE RUNNER (2007), QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), WORLD WAR Z (2013), and CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018).

We join Otto on his morning rounds, and that’s when we witness his constant annoyance on display, while also meeting some of his neighbors like Jimmy the friendly power walker (played by Cameron Britton), as well as the ultra-friendly new neighbors, very pregnant Marisol (a superb Mariana Trevino), her husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and their herd of young kids. There is also Otto’s estranged friend Reuben (Peter Lawson Jones), who is now very sick, his wife Anita (Juanita Jennings), and Malcolm (Mack Bayda) a local boy whose parents kicked him out because he’s transgender. Malcolm has a connection to Otto’s late wife, and it’s her passing that has not only caused Otto’s personality to shift into grump mode, but also pushed him to explore ways to join her ‘in a better place’, although he can’t quite manage the next step.

Marisol is really the major force in the story, as her unrelenting friendliness and persistence in connecting with Otto, slowly breaks down his defense as he finds a reason to live. Director Forster uses flashbacks to help us understand Otto’s background. Hanks’ own son Truman Hanks plays him as a young Otto, while Rachel Keller portrays young Sonya, the girl that wins his heart. A devastating personal tragedy can certainly impact a person to the point where their personality and outlook changes; however, we also see how a positive influence … here with Marisol … can help pull someone out of a dark emotional hole.

Tom Hanks (coming off his roles as Colonel Tom Parker in ELVIS and Geppetto in PINOCCHIO) is so familiar to movie goers that it’s comical to see him go full grump, although it should be noted that he’s more Walter Matthau in BAD NEWS BEARS (1976) or GRUMPY OLD MEN (1993) than he is Clint Eastwood growling “Get off my lawn” in GRAN TORINO (2008). In other words, despite some similarities to ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002), the film is never quite as dark as it portends, even with Otto’s congenital heart issue and the redevelopment threats from the perfectly named Dye & Merica Real Estate Company. This is designed and presented as a sentimental mainstream film that is easily relatable, and it will undoubtedly have that appeal.

Opens in theaters on January 6, 2023



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:

LIFE OF PI (2012)

November 26, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. Every now and then we are reminded of just how stunning movies can be. Periodically a filmmaker proves to us that pushing the envelope of creativity still drives some auteurs. James Cameron brought us Avatar, which demonstrated that 3D technology could be beautiful and breath-taking. As beautiful and new as Cameron’s breakthrough was, it lacked a story worthy of it advancements. Now, we get director Ang Lee’s vision of Yann Martel’s worldwide bestseller, and we are left gasping at what happens when you combine a fantastical story with technological advances and perfection.

Ang Lee has provided us with a varied selection of films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; and Sense and Sensibility. He refuses to be limited by genre and takes a global and philosophical view of filmmaking. He wants us to think and discuss and think some more. His Life of Pi film purposefully leaves many scenes, events and thoughts open to interpretation. You can see as much or as little of humanity in this story as you like.

The brilliant opening depicts real animals in the real zoo located in Pondicherry, India. The colors, sights and sounds are dazzling and give us an immediate sense of the area and culture. We meet young Pi and his family. Pi is inquisitive and ingenious from an early age. His father imparts such wisdom as “If you believe in everything, you believe in nothing“.  This comes as Pi is absorbing multiple religions and considers himself Hindu/Muslim/Christian. At an early age, he seeks answers and meaning.  Events transpire and soon enough, Pi and his family take their most valued animals and board a ship to Canada to start a new life. Disaster strikes when a storm capsizes the ship and Pi (Suraj Sharma) is the lone human survivor. He finds himself in a small lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a huge Bengal tiger. Yes, that sounds like the first line of a bad joke, but here it’s the beginning of a remarkable journey.

The developments need not be discussed here, but rather the focus of the story is the spirit of survival that Pi possesses. His ingenious methods of learning to coexist with the ferocious tiger force us to consider what the human race has done to nature in our attempts to gain  control. Pi’s religious spirit and insightful ways, coupled with a very fortuitous and specific survival guide, lead him to maneuver 227 days adrift in the Pacific. In the process, we are treated to some of the most spectacular visuals ever seen on screen. At times the sea, and its sea life and sky, are phosphorescent. The story (screenplay by David Magee, who also wrote the underrated Finding Neverland) is so amazing that we find ourselves not caring how much is real and how much is caused by Pi’s hunger and thirst. Some of the visual effects are tranquil, while others are quite violent. A sequence featuring flying silver fish is something to behold.

The structure of the story is such that an adult Pi (played by Irrfan Khan) is re-telling the tale of survival to a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall). While this is a traditional story-telling device, it takes nothing away from the anything but traditional story of Pi and Richard Parker (the tiger’s name). We are told “This is a story that will make you believe in God“. Whether it does or it doesn’t, it certainly makes us believe in the magic of movies.

Some will compare to Castaway, while others will think of 127 Hours. My best advice is to let go and give yourself to the story and the film. There is always time afterwards for debate and discussion. Instead, enjoy the moment and be thankful that a movie like this can get made … it will lead the industry to even more creative productions down the road. So, just this once, forget what I have said many times, and go see this one in 3D. Allow it to take you away.

**NOTE: Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi on the lifeboat, is a remarkable first time actor.  Irrfan Khan, who plays the adult Pi, is known for his excellent turns in Slumdog Millionaire and The Namesake.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in it or not OR you have doubted whether 3D technology can enhance the movie going experience

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t care to see the year’s most remarkable combination of story and visual

watch the trailer: