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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THE SENSE OF AN ENDING (2017)

March 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 1967 Cat Stevens wrote “The First Cut is the Deepest” and the song has since been recorded by many artists (including Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crowe). The song’s title is also an apt description of director Ritesh Batra’s film version of the popular 2011 novel from Julian Barnes. It’s one man’s look back at the impact of his impulsive actions more than 50 years ago.

When we are young, we want emotions to be like what we read in books”. So says the narrator and lead character Tony Webster (as played by Jim Broadbent). Tony runs a tiny second hand camera store (specializing in Leica models) while leading a mostly benign life – rising daily at 7:00am, coffee with his ex-wife, and periodic errands for his pregnant daughter. One day a certified letter arrives notifying him that he has been named in the Last Will and Testament of the mother of a girl he dated while at University. And so begins the trek back through Tony’s history and memories.

Of course, a film version can never quite cut as deeply as a novel, but this preeminent cast works wonders in less than two hours. Curmudgeonly Tony is accessible and somewhat sympathetic thanks to the stellar work of Mr. Broadbent, who always seems to find the real person within his characters. Harriet Walther (“The Crown”) turns in a tremendous performance as Margaret, Tony’s most patient and quite wise ex-wife. Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) is their pregnant 36 year old daughter Susie, and just these three characters could have provided a most interesting story. The film’s best scenes feature the comfort and familiarity of a once-married couple, as Tony and Harriet talk through previously never mentioned topics. However, there is so much more to explore here as Tony’s thoughts bring the past splashing right smack dab into the present.

Billy Howle does a nice job as young Tony, an aspiring poet, who falls hard for the enigmatic Veronica (Freya Mavor). Complications arise when Tony spends a weekend with Veronica at her parents’ estate. It’s here that Emily Mortimer energizes things (and clouds thoughts) with minimal screen time as Veronica’s mother. It’s also around this time where new student Adrian Finn (played by Joe Alwyn of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) captures Tony’s imagination and a friendship bond is formed … only to be later shattered in a most painful manner.

There is so much going on that director Batra’s (The Lunchbox, 2013) low-key approach is often misleading. Looking back on one’s life can lead to the twisted version that our mind has edited/revised in order to make things seem better or worse – definitely more colorful – than they likely were at the time. Tony’s distorted view of history crumbles when documented proof of his actions is presented at his first face to face meeting with Veronica (the great Charlotte Rampling) in five decades. It’s at this point that regret and guilt rise up, and the only question remaining is whether this elderly man can overcome his repressed emotions and self-centeredness in order to make the best of what time he has left. Each of us has a life journey, and though few of us ever actually tell the story, there are undoubtedly numerous lessons to be had with an honest look back.

watch the trailer:

 


DIFF 2015 – Day 3

April 13, 2015

 

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Day 3 – Sunday April 12

Below is a recap of films I watched on Day 3:

 

CARTEL LAND (2015, doc)

cartel land Greetings again from the darkness. Even in this digital age where information exists from all sides of a conflict … often with corresponding video, the general public somehow remains complacent to issues that don’t directly and obviously affect their lifestyle. Skilled documentarian Matthew Heineman ignores the rhetoric of political speeches and plops the war against drug cartels right into our lap.

This is a different approach to a topic with which we are all at least somewhat familiar. The involved parties include the affected communities (in Mexico and Arizona), the governments and affiliated agencies (DEA, Border Patrol), the ever-expanding vigilante groups of citizens (Arizona Border Recon, AutoDefensas), and of course the cartels (focus on Knights Templar).

Intimacy is the key here, as Mr. Heineman takes us inside these groups with an up-close look at leaders. Especially fascinating is Dr. Mireles who is the face of the AutoDefensas – a group he pledges will protect communities from the cartels, who clearly have no regard for human life. The film doesn’t shy away from the expected issues: citizen pushback, greed, abuse of power, and corruption. As AutoDefensas teams with the Mexican government to create the Rural Defense Force, we can’t help but wonder if the rumors of differing goals are at play in the drug battles. Citizens want safety, but what is it that the government wants? Is the goal drug-free streets or is it a cut of the action.

Learning how desperate the vigilantes are to protect their homes, turf and way of life, we are left with little doubt of their mission. It’s everyone else that we must keep questioning and holding accountable. This is not an easy documentary to watch, but it’s necessary if you have previously lost interest as the next politician proclaims he will continue “the war on drugs”.

ASCO (2015)

Greetings again from the darkness. A broken heart is one of most powerful triggers of human emotion. Clarity of thought is often lacking during this period, and mental images explode as a rational reaction is rarely able to break through the swirling alternatives.

Brazilian writer/director Alexandre Paschoalini presents the story of broken-hearted Ela (Sol Faganello) in expressionistic hyper-kinetic Black and White mode. After Ele (Guto Nogueira) crushes his emotions and attempt at connection, he begins a psychotic mission with the goal of causing her to feel the same pain that her actions brought to him.

Many of Ela’s actions are outside the boundaries of the law, but he will not be deterred. Ele’s shock of white hair adds a visual that perfectly contrasts with Ela’s dark and brooding features and moods. White hat vs Black hat – only no one told the white hat that she was in a demented duel.

With almost no dialogue, the story is told through both stark and outlandish visuals, and is often accompanied by music that harkens to 1960’s era rock music. A masked woman and a faceless man ensure that we understand just how removed from rational thought that Ela has become. It’s quite a build up with a startling climax that features a terrific last line … explaining all.

LADYGREY (2015)

Greetings again from the darkness. Alain Choquart has had a long and successful career as a top cinematographer, and though this is his first feature film as director, his eye with a camera is obvious in just how beautifully this film is shot.

Filmed and set in post-apartheid South Africa, this little village has an undercurrent of secrecy and misery. We realize that some tragic event has engulfed the citizens with a bleak perspective, and each day seems pretty much as dark as the last. Slow-witted Mattis (Jeremie Renier) brings tremendous energy and spirit to an otherwise downbeat environment. Sadly Mattis fluctuates between ecstasy, frustration and outright anger … each shift seemingly occurring over the smallest detail.

The synergy between characters played by Liam Cunningham, Emily Mortimer, Peter Sarsgaard and Sibongile Mlambo is so uncomfortable that we never know what form the next round of broken trust will take. These are not happy people and none of the relationships even border on healthy.

The beautiful Green River plays a vital role in the story, both as a carrier of secrets and a vision of hope, and the torrential rain storms tend to bring about the next infusion of misery. The excellent cast does their best to overcome a lacking script, but mostly the film is more enjoyable to look at than actually watch.

 

 


HUGO

November 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This latest from Martin Scorsese can be fitted with multiple labels and each would be correct: a tribute to the birth of movies, a case for film preservation, a children’s fable, a special effects/3D extravaganza, a family movie with touches of Dickens. Very few directors would tackle such an ambitious project and succeed in producing such a magical experience.

Based on Brian Selznick‘s (relative to the film giant David O. Selznick) children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, this is a story of redemption and fulfillment. Asa Butterfield plays Hugo, made an orphan when his watchmaker father (Jude Law) dies in a fire. Hugo gathers up the project he and his dad had been working on, and  moves in with his drunkard Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone). They live in the walls of a 1930’s Paris train station and maintain all the clocks, ensuring accurate time for travellers. When his uncle disappears, Hugo carries on the daily mission unseen by passengers and station staff. He steals the occasional croissant and milk to survive, all while continuing the mission of repairing the fantastic automaton his dad salvaged. Hugo is convinced there is a hidden message from his father that will be revealed when the automaton is fully functioning.

 Hugo gets cross-ways with a station toy vendor named Georges, played by Sir Ben Kingsley. Georges is a bitter old man and has no time for Hugo the urchin. Chloe Moretz plays Isabelle, a ward unto Georges, and she and Hugo strike up a friendship. Hugo introduces Isabelle to the world of cinema … previously off-limits to her thanks to Georges. She returns the favor by awakening Hugo to the power of books in a store run by the mysterious, and always great, Christopher Lee. All this is happening while Hugo tries to evade the grasp of the oddly dedicated and slightly twisted station inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

 The kids’ research and automaton revealed hint lead them to a film history book written by Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s here that they discover Georges is really George Melies, the famous pioneer of film who developed the first special effects and studio system. If you know much of film history, then you recognize Melies as the one who brought us the 1902 A Trip to the Moon. It is here that Scorsese delivers a quick recap of the origination of film, including the Lumiere Brothers, the famous clock stunt by Harold Lloyd and other silent film classics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The best portion is dedicated to recreating the creative community  used by Melies to produce films with his wife in a make-shift studio.

 It is here that we are allowed to remember just how magical movies can be and how the best ones fill us with a sense of wonderment. The lines between what we feel and what Scorsese is showing us becomes so blurred it no longer matters. As Isabelle is overwhelmed in the theatre, that same feeling sweeps over us. How interesting that Scorsese’s first special effects film features the man who originated film special effects. We even get a re-creation of the famous Lumiere Brothers’ oncoming locomotive clip that caused audiences to jump. We get it in 3D in Hugo’s own station!

 I have been extremely critical of 3D and its misuse in movies these past couple of years. It rarely adds to the movie and always dims the colors and brightness. Scorsese is a firm believer in the technology and set out to show what can be done and how it can compliment the story. While more impressive than any 3D since Avatar, I still have my doubts about the benefits. What I do know is that if you can overlook the story that drags a bit and the possibly unnecessary 3D effects, you will probably find the film to be extremely entertaining and fun to watch. Howard Shore‘s score plays a vital role and supporting work comes from Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, and Helen McCrory. It’s not for the youngest kids, but it will make you feel like a kid … while reminding you that movies are the stuff that dreams are made of.

Note: with a budget of almost $170 million, there is almost no chance that this film turns a profit, but for full effect, I would encourage you to see this on the big screen.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can enjoy a tribute to film history wrapped in a family film designed to flaunt the power of 3D OR you have a pretty smart kid aged 8 or older who could appreciate the most impressive movie prop of the year (automaton).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you lean towards a cynical mindset and are unlikely to open up for a big budget children’s fable making a case for film preservation

watch the trailer:


OUR IDIOT BROTHER

August 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have seen the trailer, you might have the wrong impression. This is no laugh riot. Sure there is plenty of humor and you will laugh, but it’s not the slapstick goofy movie the trailer leads us to believe. Oddly enough, one could make the case that it’s actually a “message” movie.

Director Jesse Peretz has teamed with his writer sister Evgenia Peretz to dive into the often strained relationships between siblings – especially brother and sister, or in this case, brother and 3 sisters. There are numerous examples of how we often cheat or lie our way through life, or at a minimum, trick ourselves into believing (or not) certain things about ourselves and our loved ones.

 The movie begins just like the trailer. Ned (Paul Rudd) is working an organic vegetable booth and is approached by a UNIFORMED police officer to buy some pot. Ned laughs it off until the officer says “It’s been a really rough week“. See, Ned is an incredibly nice and trusting guy. He always wants to help people and treat them kindly. This scene sets the stage … is Ned really an idiot or are we the idiots for not being as open and trusting as he? Once Ned is released early from jail (good behavior, of course), he naturally returns to the organic farm and his girlfriend of 3 years (Kathryn Hahn). To his surprise, he finds she has moved on to Ned’s apparent replicant Billy (TJ Miller). Even worse, she has no plans to let Ned take his beloved dog, Willie Nelson.

 So Ned heads off to re-connect with his mom (Shirley Knight) and 3 sisters. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a hard-driving career woman trying to break into the magazine writing world. She believes in stopping at nothing to nab a story, or even take advantage of her neighbor (Adam Scott). Liz (Emily Mortimer) is a dedicated Mom and frustrated wife married to Dylan (Steve Coogan), a documentary filmmaker and scoundrel. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is the world’s worst stand-up comedian as well as a quasi-lesbian in love with lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones in ridiculous wardrobe and glasses).

 Not going to ruin the individual story lines, but obviously Ned spends time with each of his sisters and manages to wreak havoc for each, and anyone else within ear shot. At least that’s how they see it. All he really does is act nice, be open and tell the truth. The chips then fall where they may. Each of the sisters learn a bit about Ned, but even more about themselves.

 As previously stated, there are plenty of laughs in this one, but also moments of drama and reality that work like a bucket of ice dumped on your head. The above cast is excellent and also includes Hugh Dancy and Bob Stephenson as the police officer from the opening. Mr. Stephenson is underrated and very talented. He can do much with little. For proof stay for the outtakes over the closing credits. His is a gem.

While the sisters are all quite annoying in their own special ways, it is Paul Rudd who makes the film work. He has the eyes, nature and smile to pull off this character as someone who could actually exist. Someone we all wish we could be a little more like.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you see the genius of Paul Rudd OR you are intrigued with the idea of living your life with complete honesty

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a raunchy slapstick Apatow-type OR you prefer to miss the worst ever lesbian wardrobe captured on film

watch the trailer:


HARRY BROWN (2009)

May 27, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Michael Caine (at age 77) is like a favorite blanket … it just feels good to have him around. He always delivers a fine performance, and sometimes he puts it all together to provide proof of just what an outstanding actor he really is. Harry Brown is one of those films.

Some will take this as a revenge story in line with Bronson’s Death Wish, but I see it more in the vein of Gran Torino.   A “British” Gran Torino.  Caine’s Brown is not just after revenge for his buddy Leonard’s murder, but more importantly, he is trying to make a stand – to take back his neighborhood stolen by drug dealers and vicious punks.

Unfortunately for the film, a first time director (Daniel Barber) and a miscast Emily Mortimer don’t have the strength to keep up with Mr. Caine. Mortimer plays her detective role as if she is more of a social worker. It is actually painful to watch her. On the other hand, Ben Drew has a key role as Noel, a sinister punk lacking a conscience. His scenes with Caine are pretty intense.

The best scene of the film is when Harry Brown ventures inside a drug dealer’s lair to purchase a gun for his crusade. Caine must pull off the necessary subtlety and play it close to the vest in this quite volatile situation. Of course, not everything goes to plan and Caine’s character really takes off from there.

We are treated to the expected police department politics and the back-stabbing/not-who-I-thought-you-were character, but mostly this is one man’s mission to make things right and better. Who better than Michael Caine for that job?


CITY ISLAND (2009)

April 4, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. I am always amazed, amused and somewhat satisfied when a writer gathers up multiple stereotypes, massages the conflict and dialogue, and emerges with a script that captures interest and holds attention. Writer/director Raymond De Felitta has done just that with working class Italian New Yorkers.

All story lines revolve around the secrets each of the family members keep from the others. Sure, we all understand that two-way communication and trust create a much stronger and healthier family, but sometimes, it’s just not that simple.

Andy Garcia plays the head of this secretive bunch and he sets the stage with two whoppers. The first is his slinking off to acting classes while chasing his lifelong dream of becoming an actor – like his inspiration, Marlon Brando. To cover this one up, he tells his wife (Julianna Margulies) that he is off to another poker game, unaware that she interprets this as code for his having an affair.

They have a daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) who has lost her college scholarship and is saving money to re-enroll by working (secretly) as a stripper. Guess what?  Her parents don’t know.  Their odd ball son (Ezra Miller), who believes he is too smart to attend classes, develops an online fetish habit that ends up VERY close to home.  Again, his parents are oblivious.

In most films, this would be plenty of ammunition to create havoc among the players. Not here. Garcia’s second, and much larger secret, throws this dysfunctional family into a tailspin – and he somehow is the last to realize. Emily Mortimer, Steven Strait and Alan Arkin all provide strong support to the story and this “family”.

Mr. De Felitta explored some of these family topics in The Thing About My Folks, but here he is working with his own script. The balance between comedy, conflict and insight is actually very good; though, the New Yorker habit of loud mealtime conversation is somewhat discomforting for this southern boy. Still, I have nothing but positive things to say about how the stereotypes end up providing self-realization to each of the characters, and even more importantly, an understanding of what their family really is. Good stuff here.