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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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:

 


PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

May 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I will make no apology for being a fan of the “Pirates” series. This is the fourth film and the best since the first. Though I liked them enough, I felt the second and third depended too much on special effects and the need to overwhelm, whereas this one concentrates more on the colorful characters. This latest entry is also directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) rather than Gore Verbinski, who directed the first three.

 Of course, what really matters is that Johnny Depp is back as Captain Jack Sparrow. And in fine form, I might add. He comes across more clever, witty and less buffoonish  than in the previous two. His character is much better as a worthy adversary than a clown prince. In this one, he alternates between matching wits and swords with no less than three characters. First, Geoffrey Rush is back as Barbossa. Only this time, he seems to have gone legit with the King’s navy. Next we have Sparrow’s long-lost love from Seville played by Penelope Cruz. They also match wits and swords (and facial hair). Lastly, we have the legendary pirate Blackbeard, played with full force by Ian McShane. Were it not a Disney movie, McShane could have made his Blackbeard one of the most frightening characters ever seen on screen. Even with the limitations, he performs exceedingly well.

 The “plot” of the film involves the search for Ponce de Leon’s ship and the much desired Fountain of Youth. The race is on between Sparrow, Blackbeard, the Spainiards and Barbossa who is acting on behalf of King George (a wonderful Richard Griffiths). As always, it’s not always easy to tell which characters are partners and which are adversaries. That’s half the fun! An interesting twist is that in order to have the desired results from the infamous fountain, one must drink from a specific chalice and include a single mermaid tear. Of course, everlasting youth shouldn’t be too easy to achieve. The mermaid sequences are fascinating, though we really only get to know one of them – Syrena played with soulful eyes by Astrid Berges-Frisbey.

Thankfully, two long time characters are absent from this film – Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Both were dead-weight that caused major drag in the two most recent Pirates films. Cruz and McShane are infinitely more interesting and entertaining and play off of Captain Jack much better.  I did enjoy seeing Keith Richards reprise his role as Sparrow’s father.  Their scene together produces the best line in the film.

 Speaking of Depp’s Jack Sparrow, I would make the argument that this character has entered the rarefied air of film comedy icon. I would put him at or near the level of the all-time best recurring comic characters: Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers, NOT Steve Martin), Austin Powers (Mike Myers) and the Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin). Of course, there are loads of others that have made a name for themselves but are a step below: Ernest (Jim Varney), Fletch (Chevy Chase), Wayne and Garth (Wayne’s World), Riggs and Murtaugh (Lethal Weapon), etc. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

As I have stated many times, comedy is such a personal taste that it’s always difficult to review. What sets the Pirate’s films apart (especially one and four) are the characters combined with action and witty banter. No, it’s not for everyone, but if you like this style, it’s difficult to beat.  YO-HO, YO-HO …

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have been hoping this franchise would go back to featuring Depp’s Sparrow OR you somehow missed the first three but are in the mood for a rollicking good time

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you didn’t like the first one OR seeing Keith Richards causes nightmares


NINE (2009)

January 3, 2010

 (1-2-10) Greetings again from the darkness. I am so conflicted on how to analyze the film and what to say. Being a fan of Fellini’s 8 1/2, I really was hoping director Rob Marshall (Chicago) could pull it off. The cast is dazzling and deep. The question begged, would it be an homage to Fellini, the Broadway musical or go a different route altogether? After seeing the film, I still can’t answer that question and that’s a major problem.

The great Daniel Day-Lewis is in the key Guido role. His musical numbers lack punch, but the rest of his performance is outstanding. All of the brilliant women do the most possible with their musical numbers. Penelope Cruz is quite provocative (as the mistress), Nicole Kidman is classy as the starlet, Fergie is explosive as Guido’s childhood obsession, Kate Hudson is energetic as the lusty American, Judi Dench is sage as the muse, and Sophia Loren comes off as royalty as Guido’s mom.

You will note that I failed to mention Marion Cotillard. The reason is that she stands out among the others. Her first number is the key to the film and the first real emotion that we get. She is outstanding and deserves recognition that she probably won’t get.

Each of the stars is just that … a star. The film never really allows us to connect to a character. There are so many fine pieces, but the lack of cohesiveness causes this one to be a near miss as a complete film. Don’t let this scare you away. If you haven’t already done so, seek out Fellini’s 8 1/2 .. THAT one is definitely worth your time.