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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SICARIO (2015)

September 24, 2015

sicario Greetings again from the darkness. Really good thrillers – the kind that make our palms sweat and cause us to forget to blink – are increasingly rare in the world of cinema these days. Writer Taylor Sheridan’s script doesn’t choose the good guys, but instead highlights the terror and lack of rules and morality that guide the border wars and drug cartels. It turns out the border isn’t the only line being crossed. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) elevates Sheridan’s excellent script further with a strong cast and some outstanding camera work from the best Director of Photography working today, Roger Deakins.

The opening sequence is about as tense as anything we could ever hope for on screen, and it introduces us to FBI Agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt. We soon learn Kate is a focused and dedicated tactical expert, who also happens to be idealistic enough to believe the raids conducted by her team are making a difference … at least until this belief is later challenged.

Kate quickly finds herself “volunteering” for a special task force with muddled goals, uncertain tactics, and secretive leadership. Josh Brolin plays Matt, the leader of the team. He charms his way through answering Kate’s questions without offering any substantive intel. When asked about the mission objective, Matt responds with “to create chaos” and a smirk. Adding to her confusion and wariness is the mysterious “consultant” Alejandro (the “hitman” of the title) played by Benecio Del Toro. Part of the brilliance of the script is that everyone seems to know what’s happening except Kate and us (the viewers)!  Our understanding comes through the slow-drip method and keeps us fully engaged.

Similarities to both Zero Dark Thirty and Apocalypse Now struck me as the film progressed, but the sheer number of stress-inducing sequences set this apart as something different. A family dinner with a drug lord is one of the more fascinating and tension-packed scenes of the year. The moral complexity is thought-provoking, and the abundance of corruption and politics in relation to the cartels and war on drugs, leave us wondering not just whether this war can be won, but through what methods is it being fought.

Welcome to Juarez”, says Alejandro, as the SUV motorcade makes its way past the remnants of a brutal crime scene. Although there are some tremendous sequences of tactical raids (and the best traffic jam you’ve seen), this should not be labeled as an action film … it’s so much more. Ms. Blunt’s character is the conscience of the film, but it’s Brolin’s Matt that makes us curious as to his background and motivation. And as interesting as are those two characters, they pale in comparison to Benecio’s man on a mission. Del Toro doesn’t act frequently, but he possesses the gift that has him dominating the screen … forcing our eyes to follow his every movement. Rumors have a prequel in the works that will focus on Alejandro’s roots. It’s the “land of wolves”, and Alejandro is an alpha.

Lastly, it must be stated that the film is a technical treat. The unique score from Johann Johannsson is never overbearing, and often mimics our pounding hearts. It’s worth taking note. Best of all is the work of the great Roger Deakins. His photography is astounding and this could be his best work yet. The desert landscapes are just as crucial as the claustrophobic raids or the impromptu strategy sessions, and Deakins puts us right where we need to be. As a companion piece to this excellent film, I would recommend Matthew Heineman’s extraordinary documentary from earlier this year, Cartel Land.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INTO THE WOODS (2014)

December 23, 2014

 

into the woods Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a musical, but not a typical musical. It’s a fairy tale, but not a typical fairy tale. It’s funny, but not a typical comedy. It’s a bit frightening, but not a typical monster film. It’s filled with lessons of morality and responsibility, but certainly not a typical parable. In fact, there is nothing typical about director Rob Marshall’s (Oscar winner for Chicago) screen adaptation of the smash Broadway hit from Stephen Sondheim and James Lupine.

The story revolves around 4 classic Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, in a style much more similar in tone to the edgy Brothers Grimm, than the cuddly Walt Disney traditionals. These four are intertwined with the saga of a baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who discover they have been unable to have children due to a long ago spell cast by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep). With a secret agenda, the witch offers the couple a way to break the spell, and that’s what ties-in the four tales and provides a reason for adventure and song.

Filmed seamlessly between an elaborate sound stage and a couple of park locations, the film has a dark and eerie feel to it that’s probably too intense for younger children. And much of the dialogue and lyrics is aimed directly at adults and will be a blur to kids. Additionally, in typical Sondheim fashion, the songs aren’t catchy and melodic in the manner of most movie musicals … instead the lyrics propel the story and help shape the characters. Oh, and by the way, don’t expect any fancy dance sequences – this is pretty serious stuff with plenty of angst amongst the characters.

Ms. Streep is extraordinary as the witch (both nasty and beautiful) and does a terrific job with her three main songs. She is especially fun in her entrances and exits, and while wearing the most impactful of all the costumes. Emily Blunt also handles her vocals very well and offers up some of the film’s most witty dialogue. Chris Pine (as the Prince) is flat out hilarious, and with a twinkle in his eye, spouts lines such as “I was raised to be charming, not sincere”. He also shares the screen with Billy Magnussen (playing the younger brother) in the most audacious of the musical numbers, “Agony”. As Cinderella, Anna Kendrick once again proves she is an exceptionally talented singer, and James Cordon anchors the production as the nice guy village baker we are rooting for.

In supporting roles, we have a devilish Johnny Depp whose screen time as the Big Bad Wolf is quite limited, and a perfectly cast Christine Baranski as the evil step-mother in cahoots with her non-Cinderella daughters played by Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard. Lilla Crawford is Little Red Riding Hood, and her young age snuffs out much of the innuendo that the Wolf scenes should have provided, and takes the edge off the song “I Know Things Now”. Daniel Huddlestone is an energetic Jack, and dependable Tracey Ullman plays his frustrated mom. MacKenzie Mauzy captures the awakening of Rapunzel, while Frances de la Tour frightens everyone involved as the agitated (for good reason) Lady Giant.

Unconventional is the best description of this production, and there is a group of viewers who will be totally captivated by it, while a much larger group will probably find it too dark and bleak, and lacking the easy charm we have come to expect from movie musicals. However, for those of us in the first group, we will be totally enchanted by the characters, story lines, wry humor, costumes, sets, and songs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your fairy tales a bit on the dark side OR you want to see yet another incredible performance from Meryl.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a light-hearted holiday matinee for the little kiddies

watch the trailer:

 


EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

June 8, 2014

edge Greetings again from the darkness. Director Doug Liman is best known for his fine work at the beginning of the “Bourne” franchise. His latest has so many obstacles to overcome, a tip of the cap is in order for a thriller that isn’t altogether without merit.

These obstacles include such things the all too familiar sub-genre of alien-invasion, an overload of special effects, a familiar actress in an unfamiliar action-hero role, and above all others, the casting of the divisive Tom Cruise … whose detractors will certainly get a kick out of the nearly endless stream of on screen deaths his character experiences. After all, what’s more fun than bashing Cruise over and over and over again? On the plus side, the special effects are very well done; Emily Blunt (despite being the best tanned Brit ever) more than holds her own; and the role allows Tom Cruise to do the two things he does best: incredible stunts and action sequences, and transform from cocky d-bag to dependable, highly competent icon. Without much thought, it’s pretty easy to see the similarities to his characters in Top Gun, Jerry Maguire, A Few Good Men, and The Color of Money … and of course, his recent outing in Oblivion. There is also a convenient excuse for Cruise to lose his battle helmet, an unnecessary segment of him riding his motorcycle, and of course, the patented Cruise sprint is on display.

The movie itself begs for the obvious comparison to Groundhog Day and Source Code, with elements of Aliens, District 9, and The Matrix. Despite all the familiarity, this one kind of works thanks to the screenplay of Christopher McQuarrie (3 other Cruise movies) based on the 2004 novel from Hiroshi Sakurazaka entitled “All You Need is Kill”. Why the Producers chose this generic, daytime soap opera type title over the cool source material title is beyond me.

Cruise especially takes to the first half comedic moments, and that explains why the first half of the movie is much stronger than the second. The phrase “On your feet, Maggot” takes on the the Sonny and Cher role from Groundhog Day, and to great effect. Supporting work from Noah Taylor, Brendan Gleeson, and (a gleeful scene chewing) Bill Paxton add sufficient distraction from the heavy action moments.

So whether you enjoy special effects, intense action scenes, or just watching Tom Cruise get killed time and time again, you will probably find this one entertaining enough … even though not much will stick with you a day later.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: big budget Sci-Fi action movies on the big screen are your thing OR you can find humor in a Tom Cruise character being killed off over and over and over again … purely to advance the plot!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you consider alien-invasion movies to have reached the saturation point

watch the trailer:

 


LOOPER (2012)

September 29, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/Director Rian Johnson (Brick) delivers a very entertaining, creative, thrilling and clever sci-fi film that features time travel, dark comedy, romance, metaphysics, and enough action to keep just about any viewer engaged … as long as you enjoy using your brain a bit.  This one requires some assembly … and the ability to ignore the horribly distracting make-up/prosthetic/special effects used to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like a young Bruce Willis (he doesn’t).

Source Code, the recent film from Duncan Jones, used time travel in very limited segments. In 2074, time travel is perfected, but has been declared illegal. So, of course, only crime syndicates use it. When you think about it, sending your enemies back in time to be killed and disposed of is brilliant. It’s very difficult to solve a missing person case when the body has been incinerated 30 years prior. The future mob boss known as The Rainmaker hires “loopers” from 30 years past to handle the dirty work. When The Rainmaker begins “closing loops”, he does so by sending the loopers back in time to be killed by their younger selves. Yes, somehow this works.

Well it works until Seth (Paul Dano) chokes up and lets his future self escape. That doesn’t go over well with the modern day (sent from the future) crime boss (Jeff Daniels) who just can’t allow these future guys to be roaming free. Then, just like that, the same thing happens to Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). His future self (Bruce Willis) appears, young Joe flubs the kill, and the next thing you know, Young Joe and Old Joe are seated in a booth at a remote diner ordering the same breakfast and staring into their own eyes.  You may recall that Mr. Willis is an acting time travel expert thanks to his “trips” in Tweleve Monkeys and The Kid.

It’s impossible not to compare to some other time travel movies (there have been MANY).  There are certainly similarities to The Terminator, but not so much to Hot Tub Time Machine or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  It’s a tricky topic because it involves the uncertainty of how things done today might impact what has already happened. Or something like that.  It would have been interesting to get more flavor from the 2074 world, since all we see is the blissful (until it’s not) presence of Old Joe and his saviour bride. Also, you have to believe that if you came face to face with the future “you”, there might be at least a brief Q&A.

 Plenty of fun stuff in this one, although, I had a tough time buying a blond Emily Blunt as a Kansas farmer. Her young son Cid, played very well by Pierce Gagnon, is one of the more interesting characters in the film. He is supposed to the young version of the future Rainmaker, and he possesses some unusual traits … with Blunt trying to supply sufficient motherly love to prevent him from spinning off track.

Director Johnson has a knack of tossing in some dark humor at just the right time. Some of the romance seemed a bit forced, but the criminal element and the Joe vs Old Joe stuff was really fascinating to keep up with. If you enjoy movies that are somewhat challenging, and you can suspend reality for the time travel elements, it’s one that you’ll probably find quite entertaining.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: time travel and sci-fi tickle your fancy OR you want to see Hollywood’s best attempt to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like a young Bruce Wills

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Hot Tub Time Machine or Austin Powers are the level of seriousness you expect from time travel flicks

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iQuhsmtfHw


SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (2012)

March 25, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those times where I am going to be somewhat critical of a movie that is based on a book I haven’t read. That doesn’t change my belief that this movie is stuck in the gray area between romantic drama and comedy, and because of it, comes across as just a lightweight film with no real message or emotion. For this, the director Lasse Hallstrom gets the accusatory glance. His history with Chocolat and Dear John are examples of how his fondness for all things mushy gets in the way of real story-telling.

The best parts of this movie are the comedic elements. Stuffy British fish expert Ewan McGregor has some really funny deadpan moments and his inner office battles with his boss wreak of truism. Same with Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary as if she were told this was a screwball comedy. She is funny and over the top, and was probably horrified when she saw the final version of the movie.

 The story is quite creative and interesting – a Yemeni Sheikh (Amr Waked, Syriana) has a vision of creating a vast green-land around a man-made freshwater river where Salmon spawn and feed the community. Unfortunately, the story leaks to the locals that this Sheikh with too much money is playing God just to satisfy his fishing hobby. Local rebels get involved in trying to stop the Sheikh and the project. Meanwhile, this Sheikh spouts off wisdom and advice as if he just finished reading the greatest hits of Confucious.

To bring this fishy project to fruition, the Sheikh enlists the British government’s help and that’s how Ms. Thomas, Mr. McGregor and a wonderful Emily Blunt get involved. We see early on that McGregor is stuck in a loveless marriage to a witch (figuratively speaking) played by Rachael Stirling (who may have the deepest voice of any actress since Lauren Bacall). Blunt’s character is a bit desperate for love and falls quickly for a soldier (Tom Mison) who is shipped off to war. So when Blunt and McGregor first meet … it seems destiny that these two opposites will attract.

 The scenery here is pretty impressive – especially the Scottish castle that houses the team for a brief period. I was just continually frustrated that more insight wasn’t provided into what makes this Sheikh tick. Is he truly the visionary he claims? If so, why? What did the locals really think of the project and was any effort made to deliver the long term vision? If not, why? Why did Blunt fall so quickly for this soldier? Just because they had fun in bed? Seems a bit shallow for someone who can peer into the soul of a nerd like McGregor. And why did McGregor ever fall for this ice-queen he married? Makes no apparent sense.

Simon Beaufoy‘s screenplay of Paul Torday‘s novel delivers a few good chuckles, but mostly leaves us wanting a real direction for the story and bit more depth of character. It’s always frustrating when a promising premise leaves us fighting so hard to swim upstream … just like the salmon and characters of the film.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: if your favorite movie genre is non-descript love stories OR you have been anxiously awaiting a film with a lead character who is a fish expert

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an expert comedy or an expert love story

watch the trailer:


THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU

March 6, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Philip K Dick was one of the more prolific sci-fi writers and his works include Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall. He also wrote The Adjustment Team, the short story upon which this film is based. The premise is fascinating: the “bureau” is a team who influence/adjust the timing of simple events so as to lead mankind toward a predetermined future.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, the rising young star in New York politics … that is until a college prank is exposed and scandal ensues. On election night, prior to his concession speech, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), the girl of his dreams.  It struck me how rare the occasion that one meet’s the girl of their dreams in a men’s restroom. Their charming banter and immediate connection lead Norris to make a heartfelt speech that thrusts him right back into the hearts of the voters.  Turns out this meeting was a planned adjustment.

 When David and Elise meet again, this time by chance on a bus, a mysterious force begins to reveal itself. David is exposed to The Adjustment Bureau and told to stay away from Elise, lest he ruin both his dreams and hers. Of course, this isn’t really a sci-fi thriller in the traditional sense. It’s much more a love story … a love story for two people who seem pre-destined to be together. And therein is the conflict.

The story is really a debate between fate and free will. Does destiny lead us down the path or do we make our own way? Can we have it all … the life we want, with the partner we want? The Chairman of the Bureau is clearly a reference to a God-like power, but his “angels” have powers limited to shortcut door portals, slight adjustments to thinking patterns, and looking good in hats.

 While writer/director George Nolfi creates an interesting-to-look-at cityscape and an usually smart romantic film, it actually falls a bit short on overall effectiveness when it devotes so much running time to the explanation of how the bureau works. I would have much preferred more debate and examples of how adjustments affect free will and maintain the path to destiny. Instead we get a crash course on the inner-workings of this odd team. That said, there aren’t very many better faces and voices than that of Terence Stamp, who plays The Hammer for the bureau. He is a fixer who uses less than forthright tactics in his moments of influencing David.

I am probably being a bit harsh on this one considering that it is quite a bit more clever than the average studio release, but I can’t help but believe it was capable of so much more.  And I so wish the clash of sci-fi and love story had not spun off on such a silly and cringe-worthy path.  It doesn’t ruin the good parts of the movie, but it certainly prevented the film from reaching its potential.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you long for that rare film genre – a Romantic Thriller

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for the cool shortcuts through NYC – sorry, but the whole hat and door knob thing doesn’t really work.