MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) – Strangely Somber Sequel Doesn’t Measure Up

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I’ve always enjoyed Disney’s MARY POPPINS (1964), and so I was really excited to see its long-awaited sequel MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018). I had been looking forward to it for a while.

So, the fact that I didn’t really like this one, surprised me. A lot. Especially since I enjoyed Disney’s live action reworking of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) so much last year. But MARY POPPINS RETURNS didn’t work for me. Everything about it felt flat and uninspiring.

The Banks children from MARY POPPINS have grown up.  Michael (Ben Whishaw) still lives at his childhood home on Cherry Tree Lane with his three children, but sadness reigns these days, as his wife has recently passed away.  Jane (Emily Mortimer) is still single and seems to be helping Michael with his children as best she can, but it seems it’s not enough, and out from the skies returns Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) ostensibly to help the Banks children once again.

Although it’s difficult to know why she’s really there and who exactly is it she’s trying to help. Is it Michael, who seems to have forgotten what it’s like to be a child and is now a worrying grumpy adult? Is it Michael’s children who because of their mother’s death have had to grow up a little too quickly? Or is Jane who needs some pushing when it comes to relationships?  Or perhaps it’s all of the above? Either way, Mary Poppins has her work cut out for her.

And things get worse before they get better, as Michael learns the bank is about to repossess his home unless he can find a missing bank share from his father which he seems to have lost. The fact that Michael now works at the bank means little, because the head of the bank Wilkins (Colin Firth) is intent on obtaining Michael’s property and will do everything in his power to prevent Michael from paying off the loan.

There’s a lot that I did not like about MARY POPPINS RETURNS. Let’s start with the tone of this movie.  For a Disney musical, it’s filled with doom and gloom. From the photography to the subject matter, it’s a strangely dark piece.

Here we have a plot that deals with the death of a parent and with three very young children who are in a bind because their father is not emotionally equipped to take care of them once his wife has passed on.  Honestly, they need more than Mary Poppins to come swooping in singing to them about magic and the like.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t build a successful children’s story around death.  The recent Netflix’ Christmas movie THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES (2018) did it, and did it quite well. In that movie, the two children have lost their father, but thanks to a spirited and quite hilarious performance by Kurt Russell as Santa Claus, the film works. Russell and the script capture the magic needed to overcome a dreary tale of parental death.

The same is not true for MARY POPPINS RETURNS. The story never quite sheds the sadness associated with the death of a parent. The predominant emotion in the film is sorrow. This, in spite of the film’s best efforts to promote happiness and joy.

A big reason for this tone is the dark photography. I don’t think there’s a ray of sunshine to be found until the very end.  Director Rob Marshall made the curious choice to film this one as if he were making a movie based on a Charles Dickens novel.

The other reason I really struggled to like this movie was that Emily Blunt, an actress whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely, just never made Mary Poppins quite work for me. Like the rest of the movie, there’s just something off and harsh about her performance. She somehow misses the magic which Julie Andrews brought to the role. Blunt goes through the motions and tries her best to bring Mary Poppins to life, but there’s something missing.  That twinkle in the eye, that spark of nonsensical magic, that burst of giddy happiness, all emotions associated with Julie Andrews’ performance are somehow absent here.

I enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda more as Jack, a lamplighter who has taken over the Dick Van Dyke “Burt” role here. He’s the go-to guy when it comes to understanding Mary Poppins, and he gets some of the best song and dance numbers, but rather than chimney sweeps the sequel gives us lamplighters.

The rest of the cast falls flat. Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson, who play the Banks children Anabel, John, and Georgie probably fare the best. They do what they’re supposed to do, and they’re fun to watch.

But Ben Whishaw is all doom and gloom as grown up Michael Banks, so much so that he nearly gave me a headache whenever he was on-screen. Whishaw is a very good actor, and I’ve enjoyed him a lot as Q in the recent Daniel Craig James Bond movies, but here he’s stuck in a one note role.

Emily Mortimer fares a little bit better but not much as grown up Jane Banks. She’s not as dour as her brother, but she’s stuck in an unconvincing subplot that attempts to set her up with lamplighter Jack. The story never convinced me that Jane would even give Jack the time of day, and the two share no chemistry together on-screen.

Colin Firth hams it up as a rather dull villain who has no depth whatsoever. Meryl Streep has one scene, as Cousin Topsy, in one of the movie’s livelier song and dance numbers, a bit that is supposed to hearken back to the “I Love to Laugh” sequence from the original.  It’s not as good, and again, like the entire production, there’s something grating about it.

Old friend David Warner plays Admiral Boom in scenes that add nothing to the film, and Angela Lansbury has one scene as the Balloon Lady. Of course, Dick Van Dyke does show up near the end, and while he alone can’t save this one, seeing him on-screen was one of the few memorable parts about the film.

I did not enjoy the script by David Magee. First of all, it is incredibly derivative of the original.  It pretty much tells the same exact plot of the first film.  The Banks family is in trouble, and Mary Poppins arrives to save the day. Now, I’m not arguing for a screenplay that is Mary Poppins vs. the Nazis, but something a little more refreshing and different would have gone a long way here. The plot itself bored me to tears, and offered few surprises.

I also did not enjoy the theme of the adult who supposedly forgot what it was like to be a child and needs help to be reminded. We just saw this theme in the equally flawed CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) where Pooh and friends had to save an adult Christopher Robin from himself by reminding him what it was like to be a kid. The theme didn’t work in that movie, and it doesn’t work here. There’s a reason Michael Banks is so upset, and it has nothing to do with forgetting to be a child. He’s lost his wife, and he’s about to lose his home, and he has three young children. Sorry, Disney, but Mary Poppins isn’t quite the answer to this man’s problems.

The screenplay also ignores two of the other central characters from MARY POPPINS, Jane and Michael’s parents, George and Winnifred Banks. They’re barely mentioned at all in this sequel, and if you’re a fan of the original, you kind of want to know what happened to them, since Mary Poppins didn’t arrive in that first movie only to save the children. She was there for the parents as well.

And since this sequel is so derivative of the original, at times you feel as if you are watching a remake rather than a sequel, except MARY POPPINS RETURNS has none of the memorable songs that the original had.  MARY POPPINS gave us “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Feed the Birds,” “Step in Time,” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” to name just a few.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS does get better as it goes along, and it saves its best stuff, especially its song and dance numbers, for its second half.  The rousing “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” was probably my favorite dance number in the movie, but again, it’s highly derivative of the “Step In Time” number from the original.

The sequence involving Big Ben is also noteworthy, and the final number “Nowhere to Go But Up” is one of the better song and dance sequences in the film. Had this number occurred early on, and the rest of the film were to have gone on and explored uncharted territory, then perhaps MARY POPPINS RETURNS would have been something special.

As it stands, it’s not very special at all.

In fact, MARY POPPINS RETURNS isn’t much better than a standard by the numbers sequel, offering little to fans of the original other than a rehash of the same plot points but without the wonderful Sherman brothers’ songs.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018) -Good-Natured Sequel Starts Slow, Finishes Strong

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Guilty pleasure alert!

I really liked MAMA MIA! (2008) when it came out ten years ago.

I mean, it had a fun cast, led by Meryl Streep, and it included hammy performances by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard— sure, Brosnan couldn’t sing, but I just looked the other way—and it was also the first film in which I saw Amanda Seyfried, and I became an instant fan. Plus, there were all the ABBA songs, which I have always enjoyed. The film was a pleasant surprise.

Now, ten years later, comes the sequel, MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018).

MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN takes place five years after the events of the first movie. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has refurbished her mom’s fabulous home on the Greek island of Skopelos and is planning an opulent open house shindig worthy of Jay Gatsby. However, she’s troubled because things aren’t quite right with her hubbie Sky (Dominic Cooper) as he’s been offered a job in New York City and would rather be there than in Greece with her. Plus, of her “three dads” only Sam (Pierce Brosnan) is present, as both Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) have obligations elsewhere.

And Sophie is feeling the pressure because this party is in honor of her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) who passed away a year earlier. Alas, Meryl Streep fans, you won’t see much of Streep here since her character is deceased, but since this is a happy musical, she does get to appear in one scene.

Interspersed with this present day story is a second story told via flashback, Donna’s background story. We follow a young Donna (Lily James) and witness how she first meets Sam, Harry, and Bill, as well as how she finds herself in Greece. The film jumps back and forth seamlessly between both stories.

And that’s pretty much the plot of this one.

As far as stories go, the two told in MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN are rather weak. I found both tales rather flat and nowhere near as engrossing as the fun plot told in the first film, where Sophie invited her three possible dads to her wedding in the hope of learning which one was her real dad. That story worked. The ones here put me to sleep.

Of course, you don’t see MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN for its story. You see it for its song and dance numbers, and for its light upbeat style and humor, and on these fronts, the film doesn’t disappoint. The musical numbers are decent, though not as good as the ones in the first film, and the script provides frequent chuckles.

The best part about MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN is that it gets better as it goes along and finishes strong, which goes a long way towards helping you forget about its slow opening. And the reason it gets better is during the film’s third act, the heavy hitters arrive, folks like Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard, and their presence adds quite a bit. Even Cher shows up as Sophie’s grandmother, looking tremendous for someone in her 70s. And Cher even gets two musical numbers in this one!

And the film saves the best for last. The final number during the movie’s end credits is one of the liveliest of the film.

Lily James has the daunting task of playing a young Donna, a role previously played by Meryl Streep. Plus, she’s asked to carry half the movie since she has a lot of screen time. James is actually quite good here, which comes as no surprise since she has also delivered strong performances in films like BABY DRIVER (2017) and DARKEST HOUR (2017). She also starred as Lady Rose MacClare on TVs DOWNTON ABBEY (2012-2015).

I also thought Alexa Davies as young Rosie and Jessica Keenan Wynn as young Tanya were both exceptionally good. Wynn is the granddaughter of the late Keenan Wynn.

The males didn’t fare as well.  While Hugh Skinner as young Harry, Josh Dylan as young Bill, and Jeremy Irvine as young Sam, were all okay, none of them were all that memorable.

And none of them make you forget the original actors in the roles.

Both Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard once again have field days in their roles as Harry and Bill, and once they enter the movie for its third act, the fun picks up. Pierce Brosnan gets more serious scenes this time around, as he shares some tender moments with his daughter Sophie, and I’m happy to say, he seems to have improved upon his singing!

Julie Walters and Christine Baranski also reprise their roles from the first movie as Rosie and Tanya respectively, and they’re hilarious once again. I wish they had been in the movie more.

Likewise, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper reprise their roles as well, as Sophie and Sky, but they really don’t make much of an impact.  Cooper isn’t in this one much (probably busy with the TV show PREACHER), and Seyfried, as much as I like her, gets stuck with some of the worst lines in the movie.

Much of the dialogue in this one is pretty bad. Director Ol Parker also wrote the screenplay, and while the dialogue in the flashback sequences is okay, some of the stuff in the here and now is flat out dreadful. And most of these clinkers go to Amanda Seyfried, as well as to Andy Garcia.

Yup, veteran actor Andy Garcia is in this one as well. Sadly, his lines are so bad he doesn’t even sound like a real person. I like Garcia a lot, and I’m glad to see him in movies again. He enjoyed a bigger and better role in the recent comedy BOOK CLUB (2018), where he played Diane Keaton’s love interest. Here, he plays a character named Fernando, and if you’re familiar with ABBA songs, you know where that’s going.

Also, a quick shout out to Maria Vacratsis who steals every scene she’s in as an elderly Greek woman named Sofia.

And if you look fast you’ll see Jonathan Goldsmith show up quickly as Fernando’s brother. While Goldsmith’s acting career dates back to the 1960s, he’s most famous nowadays for his long running stint as “the most interesting man in the world” on Dos Equis beer commercials from 2006-2016.

I can’t say that I liked MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN all that much. I definitely enjoyed its third act and was glad it built towards a strong conclusion, but taken as a whole, its story just never really grabbed me.

Not that it matters in the long run. I saw it in a packed theater on a week night, a theater filled primarily with women of all ages. I think I saw one other man in the theater, and I’m not complaining, mind you. There’s nothing wrong with being surrounded by women of all ages. It was actually pretty nice.

MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN certainly played like a sequel, in that it’s not as fresh or as lively as the original. But as long as there’s not a MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO ONE MORE TIME! it’s all harmless good fun.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Monsters & Villains

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Christmas can be a difficult time.

Whether it be dealing with all the shopping, spending money we simply don’t have, spending time with extended family, time that is far too extended, or perhaps spending time alone.  Whatever the reason, Christmas is not always the harbinger of joy for some folks.

For others, though, it’s a time to celebrate with family and friends, to enjoy family traditions, and to rest and relax.  And still for  others, it’s a time of religious reflection and significance.

For me, it’s a little bit of all of these things, except for the rest and relax part.  Of all the holidays, Christmas is the one I least associate with rest and relaxation.  It’s anything but. In short, it’s incredibly exhausting, and more often than not, stressful.

Regardless of where you fall on the Christmas meter, if there’s one thing that most of us can agree on, especially those of us who grew up watching all those Rankin Bass animated Christmas specials, is that they were always a highlight of the season.

So, let’s have a look at some Christmas monsters and villains, courtesy of Rankin Bass.

Here we go:

Professor Hinkle, FROSTY THE SNOWMAN (1969).

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For my money, the most evil villain ever to appear in a Rankin Bass Christmas special was the dastardly Professor Hinkle, voiced by Billy De Wolfe.  Hinkle, that mad magician, was responsible for locking Frosty in that greenhouse, causing him to melt.  Yup, Hinkle killed Frosty!  Wow.  Talk about your demented movie villains!  Thankfully, this being a Christmas special, we learn that Frosty was made from Christmas snow, and thanks to some help from Santa Claus himself, he returns to life.  Phew!

 

Heat Miser & Snow Miser, THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS (1974)

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Arguably the most famous of the Christmas Special villains, the Brothers Miser certainly own the best song/dance number. Say either name and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t break into song immediately.  “I’m Mister Snow Miser, I’m Mr. Snow.”

Snow Miser, voiced by Dick Shawn, and Heat Miser, voiced by George S. Irving, are by far the most memorable part of THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS.  And they remain villainous throughout, until the end, when they’re scolded by their mother, Mother Nature.

 

Winter Warlock, SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (1970)

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The Winter Warlock, voiced by the great Keenan Wynn, was such a strong presence in SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN, that he nearly gave me nightmares when I was a kid. Of course, he’s only a baddie for half the special, as later on Kris Kringle softens his heart and he joins the side of Santa and his friends.

 

The Abominable Snowman, RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964)

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By far, my favorite of the Christmas Special monsters and villains.  He’s so ferocious that he nearly eats Rudolph for dinner!  But thanks to a quick thinking Hermey the Elf and Yukon Cornelius, he’s overpowered, and the young wannabe-dentist elf Hermey removes all his teeth, making him harmless, so harmless in fact that by the end of the story he’s helping decorate the massive Christmas tree at Santa’s house.

And while this is certainly a happy ending, I’m not so sure it’s so happy for Mr. Abominable Snowman.  I think Hermey went a bit too far.  Pulling all his teeth?  Jeesh!

Anyway, at least he survived the fall off the cliff, and that’s because— “Bumbles bounce!”

Okay, that’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed this look at Christmas specials’ monsters and villains.

Have a monstrous Christmas, everybody!

—Michael

 

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) – Energetic, Joyful Musical Difficult to Dislike

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Hugh Jackman is P.T. Barnum, the greatest showman.

While THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) is not as good as last year’s sensational LA LA LAND (2016), it does boast the same songwriting tandem of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won an Academy Award for their work on LA LA LAND and who are back at it again here with eleven new songs for THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.

For this reason alone, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is worth a trip to the theater, but that’s not all.  There’s a lot to like about this new musical.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN tells the story of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) beginning when he was a young boy living in poverty and highlighting his budding friendship with a wealthy young girl named Charity.  As adults, they fall in love and get married, and Barnum promises Charity (Michelle Williams) the life she always wanted, and the way he believes he can do that is by entertaining others.

He opens up a Barnum wax museum but finds he can hardly sell a ticket.  When his young daughters tell him no one comes to the museum because there’s nothing alive inside, he remembers a time from his childhood when he was offered an apple by one of the street people, a person with a facial deformity, and he gets the idea that if his museum featured these types of folks, people would come because they want to see the bizarre and the unusual.

So, Barnum goes out and assembles a large group of the strange and unusual, and while these folks are admittedly nervous and wary about being laughed at and exploited, they soon realize that Barnum has their best interests at heart.  Eventually, they become a very close-knit family.

When a major newspaper critic slams the museum as a “circus,” Barnum embraces the criticisms and uses them to promote his show more, even going so far as to change the name from Barnum’s Museum to Barnum’s Circus.  The show is a huge hit, fueled by Barnum’s unceasing enthusiasm and energy, but it’s not without obstacles, as there are violent protests by locals who declare that the “freaks” should not be seen.  And when a major scandal involving Barnum himself erupts, things hit rock bottom.  But the show must go on, and against all odds, it does.

There are two main themes on display in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, and both work well. The first is the power of imagination.  Time and time again, we see Barnum start with nothing but an idea, one that he’s not afraid to pursue, and when he does, the ideas become reality.   The theme that one is only limited by one’s imagination or lack thereof, that if you can think it, you can do it, really resonates.  Barnum is presented as a man full of imagination, while the naysayers around him are seen a close-minded “realists.”

The other theme is inclusion and acceptance.  Barnum is viewed as a hero to the eclectic group of outcasts he has assembled, as someone who gave them a platform.  For the first time in their lives, they are accepted and loved, and for many of them it’s the first time they are truly happy.  The circus is not presented here as a place that exploited them, but rather as their home.  Furthermore, it gave them a livable wage.

Still, things aren’t perfect.  When Barnum promotes the famous European singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and brings her to New York to perform in the U.S. for the first time, he is uncomfortable about having his circus “cast” appear among this high-class New York audience and does his best to hide them out of view, much to their chagrin.

And when junior partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) falls in love with trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) who is black, he finds that being seen with her in public is still something he’s not able to do, in spite of his feelings for her.

The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon delivers some solid storytelling. The characters aren’t always fleshed out as well as they could be, and sometimes moments of adversity are overcome in the blink of an eye, striking at the story’s credibility, but for the most part the storytelling here is commendable. Writer Bill Condon also directed another musical I really liked this year, Disney’s live action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017).

Of course, the biggest reason to see any musical is the music, and I really enjoyed both the songs and the music score.  While not as memorable as their songs for LA LA LAND, the work here by lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is still quite enjoyable.  I found the music rousing and the lyrics poignant.  Some may have trouble with the modernized pop-like score, instead of something more fitting for the 1800s time period, but I liked it just fine.

Hugh Jackman is a natural fit in the role of P.T. Barnum.  It’s his first film musical role since LES MISERABLES (2012). and while his work here as Barnum isn’t as impressive as his work as Jean Valjean, it’s still quite satisfying and enjoyable.  He makes Barnum believable as a man who simply wanted to entertain others and be able to support his wife and two daughters. He effortlessly performs the ambitious song and dance numbers, and easily carries this movie on his back.  He provides a strong likable presence from beginning to end.

As Barnum’s wife Charity, Michelle Williams doesn’t fare as well.   Williams is an outstanding actress, even in small roles, as made evident by her phenomenal supporting performance in last year’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016),  a role that earned her an Oscar nomination.  Here, she plays second fiddle to Jackman’s Barnum throughout.  The dutiful wife, Charity remains loyal to the end, but as a role for Michelle Williams, there’s hardly anything for her to do, even though she receives second billing here. William’s lack of relevant screen time was probably my least favorite part of this movie.

Zac Efron makes for a likable Phillip Carlyle, the man who works his way up to becoming Barnum’s business partner.

Rebecca Ferguson plays singer Jenny Lind with mixed results.  I like Ferguson a lot, and we just saw her in the thriller THE SNOWMAN (2017) with Michael Fassbender, as well as in the science fiction thriller LIFE (2017). Here as famed singer Jenny Lind, Ferguson possesses a strong presence in her dramatic scenes, but she’s not quite as natural with the song numbers, and since she’s supposed to be the greatest singer in the world at the time, this is slightly problematic.

On the other hand, Zendaya is absolutely mesmerizing as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her when she was onscreen, and it’s a meaty role.  She is constantly dealing with racism, and life for her is a battle.  We catch glimpses of it through the struggles she faces in her own relationship with Phillip.

She delivers one of the best performance in the movie, and she’s certainly in one of the most dynamic scenes in the film, an intense rapid-fire musical number with Zac Efron in which she also performs on the trapeze.  The speed with which this number moves is really impressive.  Supposedly, Zendaya did all her own trapeze stunts in the film.

I really enjoyed Zendaya earlier this year for her work in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), but I think her work here in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is even better.

Keala Settle also stands out as Letti Lutz, the “bearded lady,” as does Sam Humphrey as the diminutive Tom Thumb.

And Paul Sparks is memorable as critic James Gordon Bennett, the man who is relentless in his criticism of Barnum and his show.  He and Jackman share some memorable scenes, especially as they discuss their philosophies as to what constitutes art and entertainment.  Bennett doesn’t see Barnum’s show as even being close to art, yet he can’t deny that the audiences love it, while Barnum views Bennett as being shallow and close-minded, or as he says “an art critic who can’t find joy in art.”  Sparks has been playing author Thomas Yates on Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS (2015-2017), and he plays a similar role here as critic Bennett.

First time director Michael Gracey does a nice job here.  He imbues the film with nonstop energy.  The dance numbers are in-your-face rousing and the songs inspirational.  The pacing is also good.  The movie’s one hour and 45 minute running time flies by fast.

Again, I would have enjoyed more character development, and I would have preferred it had some of the obstacles in which the characters faced here took more grit and resolve to solve.  As things stand, everything gets wrapped up in a neat tidy package.  Even the ultra-optimisitic LA LA LAND threw us a curve at the end.

Also, the CGI-created animals here, the elephants and lions, look pretty darn fake.

But these are small concerns.  The film stands on its music and dance numbers, and on these notes, it doesn’t disappoint.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN might not be the greatest musical ever made, and it might not give us an honest look at P. T. Barnum, who is seen here in nothing short of a one-sided positive light, but it is a highly imaginative energetic musical full of songs that will make you want to get up and dance.  In short, it’s generous with its joy, and you’d be hard-pressed not to leave the theater happier than when you came in.

P. T. Barnum would approve.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) Still Has The Songs

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Beauty-Beast-2017-Movie-Posters

It’s all about the music.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), Disney’s live-action remake of their beloved animated classic from 1991, succeeds for the simple reason that it’s still got those songs by Alan Menken.  Everything else is gravy.

I enjoyed this new version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST so much I’m going to say something here that will be sacrilege for those who love the 1991 film version: I liked this new version better. 

Sure, I really liked the 1991 animated film and was glad it received a Best Picture nomination that year, but for me the best part of that film has always been Alan Menken’s songs.  In fact, his score was so good I’ve always thought it really deserved to be in a film with real actors as opposed to animated ones.

This 2017 version gives Menken’s music the platform it has always deserved.

The plot, of course, remains the same.  A handsome but selfish prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed for his meanness and turned into a hideous Beast.  His servants are cursed as well, as they are all transformed into household items.

Meanwhile, in a neighboring village, an “odd” farm girl Belle (Emma Watson) who would rather read books than marry the muscular village heart-throb Gaston (Luke Evans) lives with her equally eccentric inventor father Maurice (Kevin Kline).  When Maurice becomes lost in the woods and finds himself at the Beast’s castle, he is taken prisoner there.  Belle comes to his rescue and makes a deal with the Beast to take her father’s place.

We then learn that in order to break the curse, someone must fall in love with the Beast, and the former servants who are now household objects believe Belle is this women, and they go out of their way to arrange a romance between Belle and the Beast.

This 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is probably not going to receive the recognition which the 1991 animated hit received, which is too bad because it’s a very good movie.  It’s grand entertainment from beginning to end.  That being said, it’s not without flaws, but even these drawbacks don’t derail this two-hour and nine minute musical.

Many have lamented that Disney chose as its director for this film Bill Condon, the man who directed the awful THE TWILIGHT SAGA:  BREAKING DAWN – PART 1 (2011) and PART 2 (2012),  but Condon also directed MR. HOLMES (2015), an intriguing tale of an aged, dementia-suffering Sherlock Holmes, and GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), an equally engaging movie about the later days of FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, both films starring Ian McKellen in the lead roles, who also appears here in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

Condon’s work here is closer in quality to MR. HOLMES and GODS AND MONSTERS than those horrible TWILIGHT movies.  The film is colorful and beautiful to look at, the pacing is upbeat, and for a two-hour plus film it doesn’t drag at all, and the musical numbers are lively and satisfying.

Emma Watson has also been receiving her fair share of criticism for a rather flat portrayal of Belle.  Sure, Watson doesn’t play Belle like a princess.  She plays her like a bookish farm girl who is more interested in imagination than romance, which is exactly how Belle should be portrayed.  So, while I agree that at times Belle isn’t the most exciting woman on the planet, she’s not supposed to be.  I thought Watson nailed Belle’s persona.

I did have a little bit of a problem with the CGI used on the Beast, and it’s not that the Beast looked fake— he looked fine— but that he looked a bit too handsome.  He’s not very beastlike in appearance.  He’s not hideous or revolting or frightening.  He’s pretty darn good-looking for a beast.  I kept thinking of that line from the song “Werewolves of London”:  And his hair was perfect.

As the Beast, Dan Stevens does a serviceable job providing the voice, and even displays some well-timed humor when he’s the prince at the end of the movie.

The rest of the CGI effects on the occupants of the castle are unusually understated and simple. Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and Chip all look rather plain. Some have interpreted this as inferior CGI, but I liked this effect.  It kept the film from going down the road of high silliness.

Kevin Kline turns in a nice performance as Belle’s father Maurice, and he enjoys some fine moments.

But hands down the two best performances in the movie belong to Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou.  Now, in the 1991 animated version, these two provided the comic relief and were over-the-top ridiculous.  As such, they were probably my least two favorite characters in the 1991 version.  It’s the exact opposite here.

While they remain over-the-top and again provide comic relief, both Evans and Gad add so much more to their performances, giving these characters nuances which simply weren’t there in the original.  Evans, as the handsome cad who every woman in the village other than Belle pines for, plays this aspect to the hilt, but he also grounds the character with a sense of military realism that makes Gaston more of a three-dimensional villain here.

As good as Evans is, Josh Gad is even better as LeFou.  He provides several laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, and he makes LeFou much more than just the mindless bumbling sidekick we saw in the animated version.  This LeFou is a real person.  Much has been made about the gay angle of the character, and all I can say is it works wonderfully and it’s a natural progression for the character.

Ewan McGregor is serviceable as Lumiere, but the rest of the cast is hardly noticeable, and this includes some big names.  Ian McKellen barely registers as Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson, while fine as Mts. Potts, doesn’t stand out either.  Even Stanley Tucci is restrained as Maestro Cadenza.  But somehow, none of this really gets in the way of the success of this movie.

And to come full circle, the reason again is the music by Alan Menken.  Somehow, those songs sound even better today.

Menken’s music score and songs have always cried out for a live action rendition.

The 2017 version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is that rendition.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Best Movies of 2016

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La La Land (2016)Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND (2016

 

Here’s a look at my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2016.  Of course, while I do see a lot of movies— 58 this year, and that’s just theatrical releases—  I’m not able to see every movie that comes out, and so this list is limited to only those movies I have seen.

We’ll start with #10 and count down to #1:

 

10. THE INFILTRATOR

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Excellent performance by Bryan Cranston powers this crime drama which tells the true story of how U. S. Customs Official Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) went undercover to take down a  Columbian drug lord.

 

9. THE JUNGLE BOOK

Loved this remake of Disney’s animated THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967), and I’m a huge fan of that original 1967 animated classic.  Special effects here were amazing, and I really liked how director Jon Favreau made this family friendly film a serious hard-hitting adventure.

 

8. DEADPOOL

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The role Ryan Reynolds has been waiting for.  Sure, this vulgar, violent tale isn’t for everybody, but the humor is spot-on.  My second favorite superhero movie of the year. Best part is it is so unlike other traditional superhero movies.

 

7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016.  Plays much more like THE AVENGERS 2.5, rhis exciting tale pits Team Captain America vs. Team Iron Man, and the rift between these two friends comes off as real and believable, something that the similarly themed BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) failed miserably at.  The scenes with newcomer Tom Holland as Spider-Man are off-the-charts good.

 

6. EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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Hilarious comedy-drama starring Hailee Steinfeld as a seventeen year-old dealing with life as a teenager.  Things get complicated when her best friend starts dating her older brother.  Topnotch script and direction by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig.

 

 

Now we get down to my picks for the Top 5 movies of 2016:

5. HANDS OF STONE

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Critics panned this movie, but I absolutely loved this boxing pic about boxing champ Roberto Durant.  Edgar Ramirez  gives a spirited performance as Roberto Durant, and he’s supported by a fine cast which includes Robert De Niro, Ruben Blades, and Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard.  Excellent movie, much better than critics gave it credit for, although admittedly I am a sucker for boxing movies.

 

4. HELL OR HIGH WATER

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Easily could be my pick for the best movie of the year, this impeccably made crime drama follows a Texas crime spree by two brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) with an old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) hot on their trail.  Features fantastic peformances by the three leads.  Jeff Bridges is amazing as always, and the same can be said of Ben Foster, and it’s also fun to see Chris Pine get to do a whole lot more than when he plays Captain Kirk in the rebooted STAR TREK movies.  Riveting direction by David Mackenzie, and a phenomenal thought-provoking script by one of my favorite screen writers working today, Taylor Sheridan.

 

3. SULLY

Easily the most efficient film of the year, SULLY, starring Tom Hanks, and directed by Clint Eastwood, clocks in at a brisk 96 minutes, and not a minute is wasted.  It tells the emotionally riveting true tale of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, aka “Sully,” and his decision to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River.  It’s an amazing story because all the passengers on the plane survived, and the film makes things even more compelling as it follows the subsequent investigation by officials who questioned Sully’s decision to land in the water in the first place.  SULLY features another remarkable performance by Tom Hanks, and yet another superb directorial effort by Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood is 86 years old, and yet SULLY plays with as much energy, oomph, and emotion as if directed by someone half that age.  I left the theater incredibly impressed.

 

2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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This film could also have been my number one pick of the year.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a finely acted drama, led by two powerhouse performances by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, about a man Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) thrust into a life-changing situation as he finds himself having to care fo for his deceased brother’s sixteen year-old son.  His life in a shambles due to an earlier traumatic event, Lee knows he’s not the man for the job, but since there is no on else, he pushes himself to live up to his brother’s wishes and care for his nephew. Atmospheric direction by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, with a script that is as honest and believable as they come.

And now, for my pick for the Number 1 movie of 2016:

 

 

  1. LA LA LAND

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My pick for the Best Movie of 2016 also happened to be the last movie I saw in 2016, LA LA LAND.  What a fabulous way to end the calendar year!  LA LA LAND is an absolutely wonderful movie.

I  loved the energy writer/director Damien Chazelle brings to this one.  The opening dance number on a gridlocked L.A. freeway dazzles, and the film never looks back.  Emma Stone gives the best performance of her career to date, imbuing her struggling actress character Mia with so much raw emotion and quirky pizzazz she’s one of the liveliest characters I’ve seen on screen in a long while. Ryan Gosling is just as good as jazz musician Sebastian in this uplifting almost magical musical which follows Mia and Sebastian through a romance in which they help each other achieve their artistic dreams before reality ultimately sets in, forcing them to make decisions which affect their future.  A remarkable movie and genuine crowd pleaser.

Hands down, LA LA LAND is the Best Movie I saw in 2016.

Okay, that about wraps things up for today.  Thanks for joining me in 2016, and here’s to another fine year of movies in 2017!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

LA LA LAND (2016) – The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

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la_la_land_poster

It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

So says Humphrey Bogart at the end of THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), words that perfectly sum up LA LA LAND (2016), but before you dismiss this uplifting musical from the director of WHIPLASH (2013) and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as pure happy fluff, there’s another Bogie quote which does this movie even more justice.

From CASABLANCA (1942):  We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we— we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.

Bogie’s words of wisdom, of course from a script by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, go a long way in understanding and appreciating where the plot of LA LA LAND ultimately goes.

LA LA LAND opens with a spectacular musical dance number  on a gridlocked L.A. freeway which hearkens back to the great musicals of yesteryear. In this traffic jam, the paths of two characters, a young actress Mia (Emma Stone) and a jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), cross in a none-too pleasant way.

After this chance meeting, the two characters briefly go their separate ways.  Mia works at a coffee shop, struggling to fulfill her dream of becoming an actress, suffering through one brutal audition after another.  Sebastian is a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club but struggles to hold onto any music gigs because he’s frustrated he can’t play the music he really wants to as he’s forced to play fluff and background music rather than true jazz.

When their paths cross again, and later again, Mia and Sebastian finally start paying attention to each other, and a romance blossoms. Not only do they get along wonderfully, but they also inspire each other’s dreams.  Sebastian gives Mia the confidence she needs to become a better actress, specifically encouraging her to bypass the awful auditions altogether and to write and star in her own one-woman show instead, while Mia nudges Sebastian towards his dream of running his own club, helping him find at long last a paying gig that will eventually finance his club.

But dreams and reality have a way of butting heads, and to become a success, more often than not sacrifices have to be made, something that Mia and Sebastian discover as they realize that their near-perfect relationship and their dreams of artistic success may be mutually exclusive.

I really really enjoyed LA LA LAND.  2016 has come to a strong close as the last two movies I saw this year, LA LA LAND and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) are among the best movies I saw all year.

First of all, just the energy level alone in LA LA LAND is enough to knock your socks off. Writer/director Damien Chazelle imbues this film with so much oomph, charm, and colorful charisma it’s hard to sit still in the theater.  You want to get up and dance.

The musical numbers here are really impressive and hearken back to so many classic musicals.  Specifically, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) comes to mind.  The number where Stone and Gosling literally float into the air is destined to be a classic.

And since this takes place in Hollywood and is about the whole Hollywood culture, there are plenty of references to classic Hollywood movies, like the aforementioned CASABLANCA.  It’s a fabulous script by Chazelle.  He creates a heartwarming romance, brilliant and vibrant musical numbers, and a thoughtful intelligent script that doesn’t let its audience down.  Chazelle did not win the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for WHIPLASH (2013).  He may get another chance with his script for LA LA LAND.

Emma Stone is brilliant as Mia.  Hands down, this is the best performance I’ve ever seen her deliver.  She enjoys some amazing moments in this movie, moments where she completely nails it, like the excrutiatingly painful audition where she’s brushed off for a phone call, or the hilarious sequence when she spots Sebastian playing with a wedding band.

I always enjoy Ryan Gosling, and he’s great again here as Sebastian.  He’s charming, likable, and has a winning sense of humor. Best of all, Gosling makes Sebastian’s idealistic dreamer a person grounded in reality.  And that’s what I liked best about Sebastian. Other characters in the film chastize him for being an unrealistic dreamer, but just because he has dreams doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess the ability and wherewithal to achieve them.  He does, and he demonstrates this when he helps Mia with her career.

Reportedly Gosling learned how to play the piano for this movie.  After several weeks of intense piano lessons, he was able to play for his scenes in LA LA LAND without involving trained musicians for the close-up hand shots.  So, even though professionals recorded the music, when you see Gosling playing piano in the film, it’s him, and those are his hands on the keys.  Cool!

Gosling and Stone share a wonderful chemistry in LA LA LAND.  Theirs is a powerful romance in the classic tradition.  There’s not a sex scene in sight, yet the feelings they have for each other come off so strongly that I have to admit, I haven’t been rooting for a movie couple to be together as much as I was for Mia and Sebastian in years.

And LA LA LAND is definitely Gosling’s and Stone’s movie.  In spite of a huge cast of dancers and extras, in terms of characters, it’s pretty much Mia and Sebastian, and with Stone and Gosling playing these roles, that’s more than enough.

The music is also wonderful, from the dance numbers to the jazz performances.  It’s a lively score by  Justin Hurwitz.  This is one soundtrack you’ll definitely want to own.

LA LA LAND is an incredibly enjoyable movie, bursting with so much emotion you’ll be hard pressed to keep from applauding, singing along, or even dancing.  From the pure happiness of Mia and Sebastian’s early relationship, a truly magical time together, to the concern when their lives reach the point where they question what they are doing, to the inevitable ending which regardless of how you feel about it, ultimately rings true, and for me, that’s all that matters.

I loved LA LA LAND.  It’s one of the best movies of the year.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.