Western movie reviews

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

There’s a new Disney sequel or remake every quarter it seems, with at least five slated for release this year (Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and Lady and the Tramp). While hopes are high for Beyonce’s The Lion King, as we call it in my house, Disney’s track record isn’t promising when it comes to these recycled classics. They may generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the studio, but most have been greeted with indifferent reviews and audiences.

The one that stands out from the bunch is Pete’s Dragon, which succeeded by embracing a new vision inspired by but not beholden to the original. Elements of the 1977 film are present in the 2016 movie, namely a magical dragon and a boy named Pete, but almost everything else, from the story to the style to the look, is its own. Instead of exhausting itself trying to find clever ways to work in the source material, the movie creates a unique vision with breathtaking results.

I’m guessing this sequel to Mary Poppins might have fared better with a similar approach. Delightful to look at and brimming with top notch talent, this film is one I really wanted to enjoy. However, director Rob Marshall strains to make something new out of the old, leaving us with a movie that looks shiny and familiar but that never truly ignites the imagination.

Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to Cherry Tree Lane to tend to the Banks family, only now young Michael and Jane are all grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw), a recently widowed father of three, is also in danger of losing the family home. With a week to pay off his loan, he scrambles to find certificates of some bank shares while the bank president, Wilkins (Colin Firth), counts down the hours. In these desperate times, he could use some help from his magical nanny, if only to calm his frayed nerves.

In floats Mary Poppins, not a moment too soon, and so another adventure begins. Except it doesn’t really. The story moves along, winding its way through London as the new generation of Banks children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) tries to be helpful, either by staying out of their father’s way or getting very much in it. They are joined by lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary’s friend who fancies Jane (Emily Mortimer).

The main conflict is not enough to bind the story together though. Every non-house related thing, whether taking a trip to mend their mother’s old bowl or washing up for the night, seems incidental. It’s as if the plot is serving the flashy, YouTube-ready set pieces instead of the other way around. Even Mary gets sidelined, an observer along with the children rather than the source of their wonder and adventure. Emily Blunt is the understudy peering from the wings, waiting for a moment to break through. There just isn’t much for her character to do. And what she does do fails to match the excitement of, say, digging through her bottomless carpetbag or piecing together or a torn nanny advert.

I could forgive the story’s bland execution if the musical numbers turned out to be real show stoppers, but the film disappoints here as well. Each is a flight of fancy on its own, with Blunt and Miranda bearing down to deliver the razzle dazzle, but I couldn’t remember a single song if I tried. There is one about the Royal Doulton Music Hall and something about a cover not being a book, but I can’t even say if they are parts of the same piece or not.

The problem with the music is really the problem with the whole movie. Mary Poppins Returns is too reverent of and reliant on the past. Every song, every character, every detail references the 1964 original. The dance spectacle “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a perfunctory homage to “Step in Time.” There’s Mary dancing with penguins, the admiral firing off canons, the kids ambling through the animated countryside. Sometimes the movie does a simple swap – labor organizers for suffragettes, lamplighters for chimney sweeps. With each nod to the classic, the story loses more of itself, becoming a facsimile of the first film but without its heart or imagination.

The best example of this is “Turning Turtle,” in which Mary takes the children to visit her eccentric cousin, Topsy (Meryl Streep). They happen to call on her on the second Wednesday of the month at precisely the time her entire home and workshop turn upside down, leaving everyone to hang on for dear life. It’s an amusing sequence and echoes a similar physics-defying scene with loopy Uncle Albert. His uncontrollable laughter causes him and his guests to levitate whilst taking tea. But whereas “I Love to Laugh” combines whimsy with the characters’ emotional ups and downs, Topsy mostly sings about how crazy things look when flipped around.

The cast does its best to outshine the material though and wring every drop of tenderness out of the script. They infuse their otherwise bland characters with plenty of charisma, which is to be expected when the likes of Blunt, Miranda, and Whishaw get together. The art department also deserves special praise. The film’s look is absolutely sublime, and I could wallpaper my house with the paintings from the opening credits. Nineteen-Thirties London never looked so dreamy and inviting. The bold, crisp sets have the confidence the film lacks, and I only wish the visual richness carried over to the movie’s other aspects.

“A Conversation” by Ben Whishaw:

“Can You Imagine That” by Emily Blunt, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“The Royal Doulton Music Hall” by Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“A Cover is Not the Book” by Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda:

“The Place Where Lost Things Go” by Emily Blunt:

“Turning Turtle” by Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt, Tarik Frimpong, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“Nowhere to Go but Up” by Angela Lansbury and cast:

Released: 2018
Prod: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Marc Platt
Dir: Rob Marshall
Writer: David Magee
Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Pixie Davis, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, David Warner, Jim Norton, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke, Noma Dumezweni
Time: 130 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

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Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015)

Like a moth to a flame, I just can’t help myself when it comes to Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. Maybe it’s my childhood affection for the cartoon or my love of small, furry critters, but I’ve somehow managed to watch all four films and, with the exception of the last one, actually like them. This fourth installment is the best one yet, succeeding where the others have failed. The acting and story are greatly improved, especially now that David Cross’s grating character is out of the way. The filmmakers have also scaled back the gimmicky pop culture references, giving us a family film that isn’t overloaded with slang and all the latest radio hits. The franchise could do with a bit more charm though. Four movies in, it still feels motivated by the novelty of talking chipmunks run amok, but Road Chip has enough of an emotional center for a heartwarming story to take shape.

Brothers Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are joined by Miles (Josh Green), son of Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), their dad Dave’s (Jason Lee) new love interest, in this cross-country adventure. An unpleasant first meeting at the mini-golf course leads to bad blood between the Chipmunks and Miles. The situation worsens when the siblings discover an engagement ring amongst Dave’s shopping and realize Miles might soon be their new brother. When Dave takes Samantha, and the ring, to an album launch in Miami for one of his artists (Bella Thorne), the Chipmunks have to find a way to Florida and stop the proposal, even if it means teaming up with their chief tormenter.

At least the enemies are on the same page when it comes to wanting to break up their parents’ relationship. Miles agrees to the plan, and volunteers his mom’s credit card, and the four set off to Miami. Trouble is never far behind though, and the Chipmunks find themselves on the No Fly List after they cause an incident involving chinchillas and goats. Not only are they stuck in Texas without any money, but they are also pursued by Air Marshal Suggs (Tony Hale), who has a personal vendetta against the singing rodents.

The “road” part of this trip is relatively short but it’s enough to squeeze in a boozy stop in New Orleans. Alvin, Simon, and Theodore join in a street carnival rendition of “Uptown Funk,” an enjoyable musical interlude precisely because there are so few of them in this movie. That the brothers don’t take center stage makes the scene even better. Instead of computer generated chipmunks flying around, desperate to grab our attention, the trio get to just groove to the music. Keeping the Chipettes’ role to a cameo also cuts down on the audio and visual clutter. The girls fly in for a glittery musical finale but are otherwise preoccupied as judges for American Idol.

A stripped down Chipmunks story allows Road Chip to really get to the heart of things, and that is the relationship between the brothers and Miles. If they make a fifth movie, and I’m not suggesting that they do – but if they do – I’d hope Miles rejoins the gang. Green is a fresh presence, even if I can’t figure out how old he’s supposed to be (young enough to be grounded yet old enough to traipse around the country alone apparently). He takes great care with his character, embracing every part of Miles, from the would-be bully to the traumatized son and protective older brother. Unlike so many of the actors in this series, he plays his part with seriousness and sincerity, and that’s what makes this a feel-good film.

The same is true for Hale, who gives a class on how to be a proper kids’ movie villain. Unlike Cross, the actor never feels like he’s phoning it in. His character is sneering, over-the-top, and foolish but purposely so. Also, Suggs is mean without being mean-spirited, which is one of my main gripes about the previous movies. This script keeps things light-hearted and avoids the franchise’s cynical streak. That seems to have elevated even Lee’s acting. He still looks disconnected half the time and never gives off any warm, fatherly vibes, but he has no choice but to perk up alongside everyone else.

“Uptown Funk” by the Chipmunks:

“Home” by the Chipmunks and the Chipettes:

Released: 2015
Prod: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian
Dir: Walt Becker
Writer: Randi Mayem Singer, Adam Sztykiel
Cast: Jason Lee, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Josh Green, Tony Hale, Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Kaley Cuoco
Time: 92 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Bottle Shock (2008)

Americans might not be in the mood to stick it to the French these days, now that we’ve moved on from “freedom fries” and into a slow-motion constitutional crisis. If you’re itching for a throwback though, Bottle Shock will take you to that time when America was looking to achieve better things, when it was a real underdog, at least in the wine world, and you could feel good about cheering them on, in the wine world.

The film is set in 1976, before California wine was a thing on the international scene. Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) owns Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, but is struggling to keep it afloat. He could use the help of his son, Bo (a shaggy Chris Pine), but the latter’s hippie lifestyle renders him useless in most matters, except when it comes to fighting racist truck drivers. Things occasionally get so heated between father and son that they resort to boxing matches in the vineyard. Both get a chance at redemption though when a stranger comes to town.

Well, two strangers. One is Sam (Rachael Taylor), the intern who knows a hell of a lot more about enology than the Barretts. The other is Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a self-proclaimed wine snob and Brit living in France. Spurrier’s wine shop is also struggling, and his only customer on any given day is his American neighbor (Dennis Farina), who slurps up free samples. In order to bring in business and earn some notice from the even snobbier French wine circle, he decides to host a blind tasting, pitting French wines against American ones. No one doubts that the French will win, but first Spurrier needs to get his hands on some of that sweet American grape juice.

The story is predictable because it’s based on real events and follows the classic underdog formula, but that doesn’t make its feel-good moments any less rousing. In fact, some of the most enjoyable scenes are the ones that play out just as you’d expect. The last few scenes are like a roller coaster, albeit a milder one. You can see what’s going to happen to Jim’s batch of brown wine and who will emerge victorious in Spurrier’s blind tasting, but it’s still exciting to watch the events unfold.

The build up isn’t as strong as that ending though. The script is in need of a major rewrite or two with some important storylines half-formed. In particular, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), Bo’s friend and one of Jim’s hired hands, struggles to get off the page. Rodriguez gives his character plenty of emotion, but there’s not enough background about his father and relationship to the Barretts to figure out how he fits into Chateau Montelena. Even important plot points, like Spurrier’s initial proposal for the tasting, are oddly missing. It’s as if the filmmakers expect us to infer the details of his plan based on a sly smile with a fellow sommelier.

Bottle Shock offers many positives, but overall, the film is more miss than hit. The only constant is Rickman, who is delightfully foreign whether he’s drinking by himself in France or navigating his Gremlin through California. Napa Valley is occasionally pretty to look at, but then again, you could point a camera in any direction for breathtaking views. Like this story though, it lacks the texture you’d expect and fails to truly draw you in.

Released: 2008
Prod: Randall Miller, Jody Savin, Brenda Lhormer, Marc Lhormer, J. Todd Harris, Marc Toberoff
Dir: Randall Miller
Writer: Randall Miller, Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz
Cast: Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman, Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Eliza Dushku, Dennis Farina
Time: 110 min
Lang: English, some French and Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)

Strictly speaking, Christmas is an origin story. The Man Who Invented Christmas, however, is not about the kid with superpowers who was born in a barn (apologies to my theology professors) but about the creation of the holiday’s other much beloved story. The film recounts how a young Charles Dickens came to write The Christmas Carol out of desperation more than anything else. The movie is humorous on occasion and sometimes clever in its conceit – his characters follow the writer’s maxim and try to take charge of their own story – but it’s also nowhere near as engaging as even the more tortured adaptations of the popular book.

Dan Stevens plays the author with a slight manic twist. He’s a man whose fevered imagination produces great literary work but that sometimes gets the better of him. After a few failures, he’s in need of a quick hit, something to pay for his pricy home remodel and his three or four kids, with another on the way. He proposes a Christmas story, perhaps Humbug: A Miser’s Lament, a real “hammer-blow to the heart” kind of tale. His publishers are skeptical, not only because Christmas is less than two months away but also because it was still a minor holiday at the time, nothing like the capitalist spectacle it is today.

He forges ahead anyway and cobbles together bits of the London life around him. A wealthy businessman’s unattended funeral forms the story’s backbone while a creaky waiter named Marley finds his way into the plot. Even the trials of Dickens’s own friends and family shape the narrative in the form of an ill-fated engagement and a sickly child. The author gets an assist from his new Irish maid (Anna Murphy) as well, inspiring him with homespun ghost stories and tales from Varney the Vampire.

As the deadline draws closer, Dickens grows more agitated. His characters come alive only to lounge around in his study and peer over his drafts, offering unsolicited advice every now and again. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) proves particularly troublesome. In typical Scrooge fashion, he grumbles at his portrayal and taunts his creator. It’s not just the imaginary that takes ahold of Dickens though. His spendthrift father (Jonathan Pryce) appears unannounced, stirring up childhood memories of a boot blackening factory where he worked after the elder Dickens was taken to debtors’ prison.

I understand the appeal of a behind-the-scenes look at A Christmas Carol. Not content to simply enjoy the story, we often want the “making of” special and feature commentary as well. Sometimes the work is enough though, especially when there are hundreds of iterations to choose from. This film never comes close to the drama and emotion of the original story, and it does a better job explaining how the book transformed the holiday than it does inspiring actual feelings of generosity and compassion. It’s a waste of Stevens and Plummer’s talents; Plummer in particular can play this part in his sleep. Though there are some exceptional personalities – Miles Jupp as Dickens’s vexing rival is my favorite – I much prefer going back to the old standbys when the holidays roll around.

Released: 2017
Prod: Robert Mickelson, Ian Sharples, Paula Mazur, Mitchell Kaplan, Andrew Karpen, Vadim Jean
Dir: Bahrat Nalluri
Writer: Susan Coyne
Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Donald Sumpter, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards, Miles Jupp, Anna Murphy
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: Ireland
Reviewed: 2019

Les Misérables (2012)

Having seen the recent BBC adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel starring Dominic West and David Oyelowo, it’s hard to go back to any other version, catchy tunes or no. The aching six-part miniseries only amplifies the deficits of Tom Hooper’s big screen production and shows the limitations of the musical format in telling Hugo’s sprawling story of poverty and revolution. That’s not to dismiss this handsome film, which boasts many positives, or Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s long-running musical, which was my introduction to musical theater, but rebottling emotions can be difficult, and this grand project leaves as much to be desired as to be admired.

I’ll start with a positive, topped by Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She deserves every award for her performance as Fantine, a character who doesn’t even make it halfway through the first act. It’s early nineteenth century France, and after the young woman loses her job in a factory, she turns to prostitution to pay for her daughter’s keep. Hair shorn and teeth pulled, Fantine bats away lechers and wonders how her life has come to this. The camera is fixed on Hathaway, unable to ignore Fantine’s hopeless fury.

Her misery is felt equally by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict sentenced to years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. He finds redemption first from a merciful bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role) and then in the town of Montreuil, where he becomes a respectable businessman and mayor. Nothing he does seems to atone for his past though, and he is undone by the tenacious prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), and his guilt over Fantine’s downfall. Jackman is at his best when Valjean is at his lowest. “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” sung shortly after his release, is laden with despair but also carries the faintest strains of hope.

That is something in short supply as every hard won happiness is met by more suffering. Valjean rescues Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), from the abusive Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), but they are forced to hide from Javert, who’s determined to chase them throughout France. When the story shifts forward nine years, the focus turns towards the anti-monarchists charging through the streets of Paris. Among them is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young man infatuated with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), loved by Éponine Thénardier (Samantha Barks), and loyal to the student rebels. Things finally come to a head at the barricades, where everyone loses one way or another.

I’ve always been drawn to the emotional texture of Les Misérables, and the film’s overall look primes the landscape beautifully. Several set pieces show off the story’s scope, such as the cavernous shipyard that opens the movie, the cramped and humble Parisian alleys, and, briefly, Marius’s decadent family home. The factory in Montreuil is also striking, sparse but saturated in blue. The entire production design, including makeup and costuming, are fitting of this spectacle.

Hooper’s direction never really rises above the ostentation though. Here is a story brimming with regret and love and forgiveness, where every character, perhaps with the exception of the Thénardiers, walks along some path of redemption. Hooper plows through it all. It’s as if the movie is at the service of brassy showtunes rather than the characters, who barely have time to catch their breath. Even with its substantial two and a half hour runtime, we’re watching one song crash into another and then another.

His decision to film the live singing instead of using prerecorded music is at least partly to blame. The technique has its advantages, and in the case of the slower songs, we get some nuance that we might not see and hear from a studio performance (again, see Anne Hathaway). But this also necessitates a lot of close-ups, and for a sung-through musical, that’s a lot of giant headshots. The camera is far too tight on the actors when they are singing. It translates into a visually overwhelming, claustrophobic experience, something my friend discovered when he got motion sick and nearly lost his dinner all over the lobby floor.

Some of the better performances are powerful enough to ignore that. Redmayne impresses with his intimate interpretation of a broken Marius in the second act, revisiting the scene of the uprising in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” He doesn’t have the gravity of Michael Ball, who originated the role, but is heartbreaking because of his fragility. Daniel Huttlestone, taking on the part of street urchin Gavroche two years before he co-starred in Into the Woods, also proves he can handle a musical challenge. In the middle of the pack are Seyfried, Barks (reprising her role from the twenty-fifth anniversary concert), and Aaron Tveit as the rebellion’s leader, Enjolras. All give fine performances if not particularly memorable ones. As the comical and rascally innkeepers, Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter add levity, but their singing falls flat.

That leaves Jackman and Crowe, both capable actors but not the best fit for this film. Of the two, Jackman fares far better as Valjean and is quite moving in his despair. If this were a non-musical adaptation, his acting would shine. I keep circling back to his singing though and think his voice too reedy considering Valjean’s physical and emotional heft. For someone best known as Wolverine, Jackman sounds pretty feeble as he strains for the higher notes.

Still, casting the Tony-winner is understandable, unlike the choice of Crowe as Javert. He’s in his own league of awful here but not for a lack of trying. Crowe is so out of his depth that he completely loses his character. Rather than a police inspector with an obsessive agenda and an unbending sense of justice, Javert is a confused guy in a funny hat squeaking out threats. Surely a dramatic reading of the lyrics would have been better for all of us. If there is a bright side to Crowe’s participation, it is the reminder that Philip Quast gifted us with this profound performance of “Stars” in the tenth anniversary concert, and that is the version I’m off to watch now.

“Valjean’s Soliloquy” by Hugh Jackman:

“At the End of the Day” by Anne Hathaway and cast:

“I Dreamed a Dream” by Anne Hathaway:

“The Confrontation” by Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman:

“Castle on a Cloud” by Isabelle Allen and Helena Bonham Carter:

“Master of the House” by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter:

“Suddenly” by Hugh Jackman:

“Stars” by Russell Crowe:

“Paris/Look Down” by Daniel Huttlestone, Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:

“Red and Black” by Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:

“In My Life/A Heart Full of Love” by Amanda Seyfried, Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks:

“On My Own” by Samantha Barks:

“One Day More” by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and cast:

“Do You Hear the People Sing” by cast:

“A Little Fall of Rain” by Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne:

“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” by Eddie Redmayne:

Released: 2012
Prod: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh
Dir: Tom Hooper
Writer: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson
Time: 158 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019