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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Suffragette

In century-ago London, women are getting angry. They want the right to vote but it is not forthcoming. They make noise. They create chaos. They get attention.

Suffragette, a grim tale of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) and her cohorts, shows the actions taken to get government leaders to acknowledge their demands. When Maud witnesses suffragettes throwing rocks to break store windows, she gets fired up and joins in.

She works in a laundry, where she and other female coworkers are subject to verbal and physical abuse by their male bosses. These men are not happy with her activism. She’s married with a young son at home. But her involvement in the cause leads to the breakup of her family and, ultimately, incarceration. (Ben Whishaw is Mr. Watts.)

While the film is inspired by real-life events, most of the characters including Maud Watts are fictional. Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) is a real person who is the leader of the movement. Because Pankhurst lives her life in hiding, Streep’s presence in the movie is fleetingly brief. Other women in the cast include Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Natalie Press and Romola Garai.

Like certain other period films, Suffragette is generally devoid of color. Clothing is mostly black and white, settings are dark and poorly lighted and sepia tones are occasionally employed by director Sarah Gavron. (The film was written by a woman, Abi Morgan.)

It’s always great to see Brendan Gleason in a movie; in Suffragette he’s a police inspector who has several conversations with Maud. He’s concerned that the movement will generate a martyr, perhaps from the hunger strike Maud stages while in prison. In the end, it is a martyr who becomes a touchstone for change in women’s suffrage in the U.K.

Sadly, Suffragette disappoints on many levels. The second-class status of women is plainly stated but the depths of anguish this condition causes in not deeply explored. Compared to, say, Norma Rae or Selma, Suffragette fails to build empathy for those who are beaten down. Feminists may experience strong emotional connections to these characters, but it’s likely a general audience will not.

Then again, I am a male. As Maud Watts points out, half the people in the world are female. I found the storytelling less than compelling but, hey, women sometimes have different viewpoints from men. (Editor’s note: “sometimes?????”) Certainly, women’s rights is an important issue, but I call Suffragette a nice try that falls short.

Ricki And The Flash

Relationships between parents and their adult children can be difficult. Particularly if a parent is in California playing in a bar band while her kids are in the Midwest where they rarely hear from their mother.

Ricki, real name Linda (Meryl Streep), is long divorced from Paul (Kevin Kline). Their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real life daughter) is having a breakdown because her husband has left her. Ricki comes back home to provide motherly support.

The contrast between Ricki’s life and that of her ex is stark. She lives in a modest apartment in the San Fernando Valley; he lives in an upscale, gated community in Indianapolis. She has a boyfriend who’s in the band, Greg (Rick Springfield). Paul has a second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald) who’s been a responsible, loving stepmother during Ricki/Linda’s absence.

The visit to help her daughter through her crisis is somewhat successful. There’s a funny but sadly awkward family dinner at a restaurant where Ricki/Linda reconnects with her two sons and revisits old family emotional wounds. Before she heads back to California, Maureen vents about Ricki/Linda’s abandonment of motherly responsibilities.

Back in the Valley, Ricki keeps rocking while she works on her relationship with Greg. Maureen makes a peace offering to Ricki and an opportunity for redemption. Screenwriter Diablo Cody of Juno and Young Adult script fame brings a too neat but acceptable ending.

Director Jonathan Demme, who directed entertaining concert films Stop Making Sense (Talking Heads) and Heart of Gold (Neil Young), devotes too much of the movie’s runtime to musical performances. Meryl Streep is a passable bar band singer but the performances are merely okay, not special.

The acting performances are better. Kline and McDonald (both of whom did not sing in RATF despite solid cred) are excellent. Streep, obviously enjoying working with her daughter, is having fun in a less-serious-than-the-usual-Meryl-role role. Gummer is good as a woman with more issues than impending divorce. Rick Springfield rocks a guitar but his acting abilities are on a lower plain than those of his cast mates.

Ricki and The Flash is an okay movie that will resonate with Streep’s boomer fans. This is a movie that could’ve/should’ve been better.

 

 

Into The Woods

 

Into The Woods is a pure delight. The performances are fun and funny. And what a cast!

Wonderful Stephen Sondheim songs bring together characters from favorite fairy tales. (The script is by James Lapine.) The songs have clever lyrics that you can understand. The songs have those Sondheim melodies that don’t always go where you expect them to go.

Into The Woods is directed by Rob Marshall who hit it out of the park with his Oscar-nominated direction of Chicago in 2002. (His 2009 film version of the musical Nine was more like a bloop single.)

The story begins with The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who want a baby. The witch (Meryl Streep) says she will lift her curse on the baker’s family if the couple accomplish three specific tasks. They must go into the woods to get things done.

The large cast of characters also includes Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), The Wolf (Johnny Depp), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Cinderella’s Stepmother (Christine Baranski), The Prince (Chris Pine), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Jack’s mother (Tracy Ullman), The Giant (Francis La Tour), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and more.

The story that weaves all these characters together is ingenious. Though these are children’s stories, the movie is made for adults. Disney toned down some of the more grownup content from the stage version of Into The Woods to make the film more family friendly. Yes, you can take your kids—it’s rated PG—but younger children are likely to become fatigued.

The film’s strongest performances come from Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and (surprise) Chris Pine. On the down side, the movie seems longer than it is. Run time is 2 hours, 4 minutes. Resolving multiple story lines takes a while. The pace of the film, just perfect at the start, seems to bog down a bit in the end.

But there are joys aplenty in Into The Woods. If you like musicals, you need to experience and enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August: Osage County

If you think your family is screwed up, go see August: Osage County. The Weston family from Oklahoma is among the most dysfunctional you will ever witness. The main source of the trouble is the family matriarch, Violet (Meryl Streep), a pill and booze addicted woman who is filled with resentment.

Violet’s daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) all have their own issues, some of which have come straight from mother. Just as Violet has had a tempestuous relationship with her husband (Sam Shepard), so has Barbara with her man Bill (Ewan McGregor).

August: Osage County should win the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble. Without listing the entire family tree, here are some of the other talented actors in the film: Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin and Durmot Mulroney.

Director John Wells and writer Tracey Letts have done an excellent job of taking a stage play to film. Only a handful of scenes have a stagey feel.

August: Osage County has been described by some as a comedy. Chris Cooper’s long-winded blessing is a classic scene and quite funny. And there are several more laughs in the movie. But, make no mistake, August: Osage County is more tragedy than comedy. The Westons are not a happy family.

Originally set for a Christmas Day 2013 release, A: OC did get the necessary runs in NYC and LA to qualify for awards season. (Expect Meryl Streep to grab an Oscar nom for Best Actress when they’re announced next week.) Don’t skip it just because it was pushed back to the movie wasteland of January. See it to witness an all-star cast delivering the goods—especially Meryl.

My Top Ten Movies for 2012

  1. The Dark Knight Rises—The story, the soundtrack, the villains, the heroes, the emotion. TDKR is satisfyingly stunning on so many levels.
  2. Argo—An amazing true story (with Hollywood embellishment) that fires up our American pride, from a period when our country was humbled. Efficient storytelling at its best.
  3. Silver Linings Playbook—An adult son with a mental illness moves back in with his sixty-something parents, following his court-ordered hospitalization. It’s funny and heartbreaking, often within the same scene.
  4. Moonrise Kingdom—From the wild imagination of Wes Anderson comes a story of very young love. Luckily for him (and for us), the two rookie actors who star in the key roles are fantastic.
  5. Django Unchained—Quentin Tarantino rewrites history again with a visit to the antebellum South where he fearlessly takes on the topic of slavery. Inspired performances from an impressive cast take this over-the-top story to spectacular heights.
  6. The Hobbit—This fantasy has a perfect mix of humor and peril. Martin Freeman brings a proper bemusement to Bilbo. The 48 frames per second technology takes cinema to a new level.
  7. The Hunger Games—The novelist’s compelling story is brought to life by a talented filmmaker and an excellent cast. Much of our modern culture is reflected in the film’s characters and events.
  8. Skyfall—The best and most memorable Bond movie in years, if not decades. To breathe this much new life into a 50-year-old franchise is an impressive feat. A toast (martini, of course) to all involved.
  9. Life of Pi—One of the most gorgeous films ever made. The story is good, but the images will endure. To borrow a cliché, this movie truly is “a feast for the eyes.”
  10. Hope Springs—One of the many good movies for older audiences in 2012.  A couple played by two of our best actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, visit a counselor who helps them communicate again. After a four-year sex drought, their clumsy efforts to reconnect are funny and poignant.

My Top Ten Movies for 2012 list does not include those that will not be released in St. Louis before year’s end, such as Zero Dark Thirty or Amour. And, while Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln was one of the year’s best acting performances, the movie itself was flawed: too long, too ponderous and too theatrical.

Hope Springs

This is a movie for older grownups. The advance screening was sponsored by AARP. Stars Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are on the cover of the August AARP magazine.

Can someone under 50 relate to a married couple that hasn’t had sex in over four years? I’m not sure whether many married couples OVER 50 can relate to such celibacy. But that issue is part of the problem that sets the plot of “Hope Springs” in motion.

Meryl is Kay. Tommy Lee is Arnold. They are a middle-class couple from Omaha who have been married 31 years. She picks up a self-help book by a marriage counselor and drags Arnold along to a small town in Maine called “Great Hope Springs” for a week-long session with the author. The counselor is Steve Carrell in a (mostly) non-comedic role.

“Hope Springs” is funny and poignant. The highlights of the film are Tommy Lee Jones’ hilarious facial expressions and a classic scene in a movie house, which I will not spoil by revealing details.

Of course, Meryl Streep’s acting skill is a given. Since she is playing an ordinary housewife, it may seem that she’s not working as hard as, say, when she’s playing Maggie Thatcher or Julia Child. No matter how hard she may or may not be working, her screen presence shows why she’s one of the giants of acting.

The TV spots make “Hope Springs” look like a laugh fest and, while there are some good yuks, this is a movie that reveals the problems many couples (of all ages) have communicating. While the four-year whoopie drought may seem extreme to many of us, there are issues in Kay and Arnold’s marriage that all long-married couples can identify with.

“Hope Springs” is rated PG-13 but addresses sexual issues that may make certain audience members squirm, just like they make Kay and Arnold squirm.

“Hope Springs” is not just for the over 50 crowd, but if you are beyond that milestone—especially if you’ve been married a few decades—this one’s for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Iron Lady”—{Meryl Does Maggie}

“The Iron Lady” asks one big question: Will Meryl Streep win yet another Best Actress Oscar?

She will receive a nomination, without a doubt, for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. Meryl is amazing, but this performance has a “been there, done that” feeling to it. Meryl gets a makeover (including some perfect stunt teeth), nails the accent and brings her normal spectacular work. (There are other actresses, though, whose 2011 performances are, in my mind, more Oscar-worthy.)

The movie has a familiar structure. We see an aged, shuffling Maggie Thatcher, who has delusions that her late husband (played by Jim Broadbent) is still with her. Flashbacks take us through the major moments of her life and career.

Unlike “The Queen” and “The King’s Speech,” which keyed on one major crisis in the title character’s life, “The Iron Lady,” takes us through several crises faced during her time as British Prime Minister. Also, those other two movies (which led to Oscars for lead actors) dealt with royals, whereas “Iron Lady” is the story of an elected official. Still, the British thing lends a certain quality that enchants Oscar voters. So don’t count Meryl out.

Margaret Thatcher was a great ally for the US during her eleven years as PM. She certainly broke down gender barriers and provided decisive leadership during a critical time in world history. But—is her biopic a “must see?” Not really.

If you are a Meryl Streep fan, you will want to see this film and you will admire her work in it. If you are a movie fan who likes to check out all the Oscar nominees, get there. Otherwise, I have difficulty finding a compelling reason to suggest you see “The Iron Lady.”