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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

Life of the Party (2018)

Life of the Party goes in some unexpected directions but doesn’t always end up where it maybe should. The film, the third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, tries a different approach with the college comedy, opting for something gentler instead of your typical rude and raunchy house party. The result is both fresh and surprising, but it’s also not very funny. McCarthy and Falcone, who serve as writers and producers with the latter taking on directing duties, seem to have their hearts in the right place, but that’s hardly enough in this case. The meandering plot doesn’t give the story or comedy much structure, and the movie fails to live up to its promise.

McCarthy plays Deanna Miles, bubbly wife to Dan (Matt Walsh) and mother to Maddie (Molly Gordon). She is living her best life until she drops her daughter off at college and Dan drops the news that he is filing for divorce, selling the house, and marrying realtor Marcie (Julie Bowen). Seizing the opportunity to make lemons out of lemonade, as one character puts it, Deanna joins Maddie to complete the remaining two semesters of her archaeology degree.

You can imagine how this could turn into a nightmare scenario, and it looks to shape up that way at first. Deanna intrudes on Maddie’s social life, giving herself an open invitation to her daughter’s sorority house. Meanwhile, her fondness for mom humor makes her the target of a couple of mean girls in her class. Another film would turn Deanna into the butt of all jokes and find a multitude of ways to tear her down. Maddie would be at odds with her embarrassing mother, a rift that would drive her into the arms of a useless coed.

To my shock, however, Life of the Party does none of these things. Instead it makes Deanna, or “Dee Rock,” well, the life of the party. Maddie’s sorority sisters, not exactly the cool kids but not misfits either, immediately embrace her as their surrogate mother. The group includes Helen (Gillian Jacobs), an older student who was in a coma for eight years, and Debbie (Jessie Ennis), who is always a step or two behind. Both are delightfully offbeat but have no qualms about showing off their new friend. They even take it as a point of pride when she goes out with them. Deanna, likewise, draws inspiration from the young women around her and gains confidence because of their support. It’s not often we see this type of generational divide used as a source of strength rather than division, common and natural as these relationships are in real life.

A novel concept does not make a movie though, and the film isn’t as self-assured its characters. There are a handful of minor conflicts, none of which are important enough to shape the narrative. Sometimes it seems like Deanna and gang are just hitchhiking along to their own story and stumbling from one spot to the next. The divorce and Dan’s general assholery are persistent background noise rather than major plot points while Deanna’s classroom nemeses are put in their place with a brief but wicked 80s dance battle. On the plus side, she has a college fling with Jack (Luke Benward), a fellow student and friend of Maddie’s boyfriend (Jimmy O. Yang in a surprising bit of anti-Hollywood casting). The relationship is sweet I suppose, but it’s not all that sincere, and I suspect it’s played more as a response to the typical narrative of the middle-aged dude romancing a fawning college girl. The role reversal provides some laughs, but like most other ideas in this movie, it isn’t that compelling.

Released: 2018
Prod: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy, Chris Henchy
Dir: Ben Falcone
Writer: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Luke Benward, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner, Jimmy O. Yang, Chris Parnell, Debby Ryan
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

London Has Fallen (2016)

London Has Fallen may be unrelated to your worst case Brexit fears, but it’s still a bit of a nightmare and not just because the city gets blown to CGI bits. When the good guywhen the guy you’re supposed to be rooting for…when Gerard Butler barks to the son of a Pakistani terrorist, “Why don’t you boys pack up your shit and go back to Fuckanistan or wherever you’re from,” you know you’ve descended into some jingoistic hell hole. The righteous American fantasy (of a certain sort) is bombastic, aggressive, unafraid to shove its bloodletting in your face, but when the day has been won, the catharsis only comes for some, namely those who agree with Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler) that “everyone is a terrorist asshole until proven otherwise.” He operates by the maxim, you can never be too careful so might as well shoot them all.

Then again, Banning might just be trying to prove his mettle after events in the previous film, which saw him regain his place in President Benjamin Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) security detail following a bout of White House heroics. That’s damn weak justification for such wanton bloodlust. He and Asher are in London for the prime minister’s funeral, a ruse by said terrorist, Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), to take out American-aligned heads of state and to avenge the murder of his family. During the initial attack, Banning shoots everything in sight, out of an abundance of precaution one assumes since the security apparatus has been infiltrated from top to bottom. The closer the two get to Barkawi, however, the more Banning the American zealot is fueled by xenophobic rage, killing literally because he can.

The film delights in carnage as a spectator sport. London is turned into a gladiatorial arena, its streets and underground cleared out to showcase all sorts of murderous combat and the players displaying an impressive array of shooting and stabbing skills. When in doubt, director Babak Najafi errs on the side of death. He wastes no opportunity to spill blood, whether it’s a blade through one’s spine or the beheading of motorcyclist or the ever efficient shot to the head.

These sequences contrast with the staid central command units on either side of the Atlantic. The head of the Metropolitan Police (Colin Salmon) and the director of MI5 (Patrick Kennedy) get a little more running around to do but manage to come off as incompetent tools all the while. In Washington, however, the vice president (Morgan Freeman) and the joint security team (Robert Forster and Melissa Leo) are reduced to a state of near helplessness. I don’t know why Freeman and company bothered returning for the sequel given how little they have to do in this film. Their scenes are restricted to the four dark walls that make up the situation room, and their only acting direction is to gawp at one another for hours on end.

There are a few touches that take the edge off somewhat. Angela Bassett once again plays the Secret Service director, who is rightly skeptical of this whole trip and seems to be the one person who can bring down Banning’s temperature. Her role is limited but at least it’s purposeful, unlike Radha Mitchell’s thankless part as Banning’s pregnant, very worried wife. Their presence makes little difference in the overall though. London Has Fallen is what it sets out to be, an angry, reductive, flag-waving celebration of American exceptionalism. I already feel like I need to atone for watching it.

Released: 2016
Prod: Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Mark Gill, John Thompson, Matt O’Toole, Les Weldon
Dir: Babak Najafi
Writer: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, Christian Gudegast, Chad St. John
Cast: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Sean O’Bryan, Waleed Zuaiter, Mehdi Dehbi, Colin Salmon, Patrick Kennedy, Clarkson Guy Williams
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019