Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns

You need this movie. Mary Poppins Returns will make you smile. It will make you happy.

Unless you’re a hard-edged grouch. Or a person who thinks nothing could ever capture the magic of the original Mary Poppins. Hey, the new version brings some new and different magic.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Well, not often. Director Rob Marshall successfully brought Chicago and Into The Woods to the screen in this century, but the big movie musical is a rare bird these days. He was a natural choice to bring Mary back.

Mary Poppins Returns has trippy visuals, catchy songs and a pair of lead actors who are perfect. Emily Blunt in the title role blends the prim and proper Poppins temperament with a touch of whimsy. Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack delivers a thousand-watt smile and big time charisma.

Set in early 20th century London, the Banks kids from the original Mary Poppins are grown now. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a widower with three kids. (“Dead mom,” you know, has become a Disney trademark.) The children are cute but not sickeningly so. Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), Michael’s sister, is unmarried and provides a vague romantic possibility for Jack.

The family is about to lose their house during an economic “slump” because Michael took out a loan and failed to pay it back. Banker Wilkins (Colin Firth) is foreclosing on as many homes as he can. Something has to be done to save the home! Of course, the nanny who mysteriously reappears plays a big role in getting the mission accomplished.

The film’s highlights are the fantasy segments and the songs. Blunt’s “Can You Imagine That” is an earworm. Miranda’s performance (with a company of dancers) of “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” is a showstopper. It’s the song that will likely lead into intermission when the inevitable stage version appears. (Although the sight of all the lamplighters marching down the street carrying lit torches triggered a Charlottesville flashback for a brief second.)

The film has just enough of Dick Van Dyke to satisfy fans of the 1964 original Poppins film. Julie Andrews chose not to do a cameo. Her spot was taken by Angela Lansbury. Nonagenarians rock!

Meryl Streep’s turn as Mary’s cousin Topsy and the song she shares with the cast are less than great but her wacky upside down curiosity shop has strong possibilities as a future attraction at Disney parks. Topsy’s over-the-top Russian accent elicits a comment from Jack which may be an inside joke about Meryl’s proclivity to employ accents in her many roles.

Mary Poppins Returns is an upbeat film for the whole family. (Rated PG.) If you can stand a little bit of goodness and light and joy and fun in your life, don’t miss it.

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A Star Is Born (2018)

A Star Is Born

The surprising thing about the new A Star Is Born is how fresh it feels. It is a thrice-told tale, but this version does not scream: “retread.” The film’s stars and (especially) its music energize the storytelling and make A Star Is Born truly satisfying.

Even moviegoers who have zero familiarity with the previous iterations of this plot can guess early on where it’s going. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a big rock star with booze and pill addictions. Ally (Lady Gaga) is a food service employee who sings for kicks in the gay bar where Maine just happens to stop in for a drink.

He gives her a leg up into the music biz and, as they fall in love, their careers move in separate directions: one up, one down.

If you had doubts that Lady Gaga could handle the female lead, well, those doubts were mistaken. She has two killer musical numbers that bookend the film and several other songs in the film, including duets with Cooper. And… her acting beyond the music is solid. This film marks the birth of her movie stardom.

Cooper is an Oscar-winning actor but his musical chops are also impressive. He wears many hats here: he directed the film and is one of three credited screenwriters. His speaking voice in the film is deeper than in his prior films. It accurately sounds like that of a man who has been a lifelong boozer.

Daddy issues play a role in this A Star Is Born. Maine’s dad—also a heavy drinker—died when Jackson was 13. His older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) helped raise him, got him into performing and still works to keep the younger brother in line. Their relationship is not just brotherly but also a bit father/son.

Ally’s dad Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay) points out that talent alone is not enough to be successful in showbiz, that looks matter. He says this to soften her disappointment as her musical aspirations stall. But when Maine offers her the chance to join him on tour, her dad encourages to go for it.

Along with the inspired casting of Clay, director Cooper brings Dave Chappelle to the role of Maine’s old chum who rescues him after a binge.

Sometimes the early positive buzz on a movie, often fueled by those who attend the late summer film festivals, fizzles when the movie finally appears on local screens. A Star Is Born (2018) lives up to the buzz. Strong box office is a sure bet. And this may become one that gets repeat viewings.

 

Les Miserables

Les Misérables has been a beloved musical stage play for over two decades and now it is a musical movie. Let us consider Les Miz, the movie.

It’s good, but not quite great. The musical performances—bravely sung live by the performers during the actual filming—range from top notch to merely passable. Likewise, the songs themselves range from magnificent to tedious. There are magic moments in the music, to be sure. But not every song sparkles.

The cast includes formidable talent, including Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Amanda Seyfried as Cossette. Hathaway is the best supporting actress frontrunner for her heart-tugging performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Another highlight is the Jackman/Crowe vocal duet/duel on “Confrontation.”

Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter handle the needed comic relief song “Master of the House” nicely. But their respective comic performances in movie musical Sweeney Todd were more effective, partly due to funnier source material.

Special mention must be made of newcomer Samantha Barks as Éponine. She is not only a great vocalist (a winner of a TV talent competition in Britain a few years back), but also has a strong onscreen presence. Look for big things for this woman.

The production of Les Misérables is big with a huge cast (singers and non-singers). Many of the settings are also big, though some are way too obviously computer-generated. The film’s finale is a stirring panoramic scene that closes the film on a strong emotional note.

Expectations have been running high for this movie. Some are met, but not all. Not hardly.

Rock of Ages

You will walk out of the theater humming this movie’s songs. Because you already know them all!

All musicals are at least a little a bit cheesy. Some are just more flagrant about it. “Rock of Ages” brings on plenty of cheese and has fun with it. The music is better than anticipated and script is funnier than expected.

The story, set in 1987, has all the rock’n’roll cliché themes. Girl meets boy: Julianne Hough plays Sherrie who comes to LA to be a star. She meets Drew, played by Diego Boneta. Rock is the devil’s work: Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a Tipper Gore type who wants to rid the city of rock. Rock is here to stay: Alec Baldwin is a club owner, fighting to keep his place open. You’re never too old to rock’n’roll: Tom Cruise is Stacee Jaxx, an Axl Rose type who may or may not be over the hill.

The big question people are asking: Can Tom Cruise sing? Well, yes. His versions will never replace the originals heard on St. Louis classic rock radio, but they get the job done.

Supporting cast members include Russell Brand as a club employee and Malin Akerman as a Rolling Stone reporter who interviews Stacee Jaxx and gets up close and very personal with him. Singer Mary J. Blige adds authenticity to the cast and, presumably, a bit of African-American audience appeal. Paul Giamatti is particularly sleazy as Stacee Jaxx’s manager.

“Rock of Ages” has a good balance of hard-rockin’ songs (“Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”), soft-rockin’ songs (“Waiting For a Girl Like You,” “Can’t Fight This Feeling”) and medium-rockin’ songs (“Don’t Stop Believin’,” “We Built This City”).

This is a fun movie. Music, dancing, laughs, romance, sex—they’re all there. It’ll rock you. Like a hurricane. (Also on the soundtrack!)