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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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—

 

 

 

 

 

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

JERSEY BOYS (2014) Walk LIke Men

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Jersey-Boys-poster-1Movie Review: JERSEY BOYS (2014)
By
Michael Arruda

I didn’t see the stage musical JERSEY BOYS.

I’m not the biggest fan of musicals or even of Frankie Valli, for that matter, as he was a bit before my time, but I am a fan of Clint Eastwood and the myriad of quality movies he consistently makes, both behind and in front of the camera, so perhaps this might explain my feelings towards today’s movie, JERSEY BOYS, Eastwood’s film adaptation of the award winning musical. It’s getting mediocre reviews, but I enjoyed it from start to finish, so much so that in this year of mediocre movies, JERSEY BOYS just might be the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

JERSEY BOYS tells the story of singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, reprising his role from the musical), as he rises from the depths of crime ridden New Jersey streets in the 1950s and sings his way to stardom. As a teenager, Valli joins a band run by his friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who in his spare time does small jobs for the local mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). Gyp loves Frankie’s voice and encourages him to make it big.

Once Bobby Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a promising young musician and songwriter, joins their group, which also includes their friend Nick (Michael Lomenda), they settle upon a name, The Four Seasons, and then they work to get playing gigs and their songs played on the radio. They persevere through early failure before they put together three number one hits in a row, “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like A Man.”

But the road to fame never comes easy for them. Tommy’s selfish behavior consistently gets in the way of the band’s success, and he owes large sums of money to the mob. Early on, Frankie falls in love with and marries the charismatic Mary (Renee Marino), and they start a family together, but Frankie’s road schedule of constant gigs takes its toll on Mary and she starts drinking, eventually forcing Frankie out of the family picture.

And just when they seem to be hitting their stride with an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, things come crashing down on them.

The thing I liked best about JERSEY BOYS was it told a good story. The screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, both of whom also wrote the musical, hits a homerun, and this comes as no surprise, knowing Brickman’s prior writing credits. Brickman’s a seasoned writer who years ago co-wrote the Woody Allen classics SLEEPER (1973), ANNIE HALL (1977), and MANHATTAN (1979).

Some have complained that the story of The Four Seasons as told in this movie is cliché ridden. I disagree. Just because there have been other stories of bands that went from rags to riches doesn’t meant that this particular story can’t be done well.

Of course, this story wouldn’t be a success if you didn’t like the main character, Frankie Valli.
From his rough beginnings in a Mafia neighborhood, Frankie comes across from the outset as a stand-up guy, even as a young sixteen year-old. He carries this persona with him throughout the story. Years later, when he should kick his friend Tommy into the street, he stands by his friend and agrees to have the band settle Tommy’s debt to the Mafia. This act of loyalty demonstrates what Valli is all about and shows why he’s determined throughout to be a success. It’s not for fame, glory, or money. It’s about living one’s life in a way that is respectful to one’s self and one’s friends. JERSEY BOYS paints a likable picture of Frankie Valli. He comes across as a decent human being trying to do the right thing, even when those around him don’t do the same.

The performances in JERSEY BOYS are all first-rate, and director Eastwood deserves a lot of credit for getting so much out of his largely fresh and new ensemble of actors. The players here all act like old pros, when in reality most of these folks are rather new to the film world.

John Lloyd Young, reprising the role of Frankie Valli from the stage musical for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, is as you would expect excellent in the role. Young makes Valli a solid likeable character throughout, and he should be applauded for running the full gamut of ages here, as he plays Valli as a teen, in his twenties, thirties, and even older. It’s a terrific performance.

Erich Bergen is just as good as Bobby Gaudio. There’s something very youthful and energetic in his performance, as he captures more than any of the other three members in the band what it’s like to be in a struggling and then successful band. He’s also the member with a head on his shoulders, and he helps steer Frankie in the right direction when things get murky.

Tommy Devito is the exact opposite, as he’s the band member who is constantly putting the band at risk. As Tommy, Vincent Piazza is superb. He makes Tommy a multi-dimensional character, one you never really hate. Sure, his selfishness and mob connections do the band no favors, but early on he’s the one who gets the band started and pushes it along.

Michael Lomenda is also very good as Nick Massi, the self-described “Ringo” of the group. Nick constantly feels overwhelmed by the group’s struggles and successes, and of the four, he’s the least dynamic. Lomenda does a nice job in this low-key role.

Renee Marino is excellent in her film debut as Frankie’s wife Mary. She’s absolutely electrifying in her first couple of scenes. Unfortunately, she’s not in the film much as it goes along, and in her remaining scenes she’s pretty much reduced to a nagging wife with a drinking problem.

And Mike Doyle as the group’s producer Bob Crewe enjoys some scene stealing moments in a neat supporting role. He has some of the film’s best lines, including a few laugh out loud moments.

Christopher Walken does the “Christopher Walken” thing as mobster Gyp DeCarlo. Walken brings an instant feel of menace and respect to the role, even though not once in the movie do we ever see DeCarlo engage in anything criminal. Walken makes full use of his presence here.

There has been only a handful of Clint Eastwood films that I haven’t been nuts about— in recent years J. EDGAR (2011) and HEREAFTER (2010) come to mind— which is remarkable considering the number of movies he has starred in and directed. The thing that I like most about Eastwood’s work is he has a way of making movies that cut through the muck and get to the simple issue of likeability. Watching a Clint Eastwood movie is like sitting with a favorite uncle who’s a gifted storyteller. He knows what he’s doing, and you know what you’re in for, a quality story that doesn’t disappoint.

In JERSEY BOYS, Eastwood effortlessly utilizes the gimmick— as they did in the play— of having the characters speak directly into the camera, and he uses this to full effect. He also uses some flashback and moves back and forth in time seamlessly here.

JERSEY BOYS is impeccably made, from the sets and costumes to the musical numbers. No, JERSEY BOYS is not a traditional musical in terms of song and dance numbers. It’s a bio pic, about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. But it does contain some tremendous music, as the Four Season’s canon of songs is a good one.

All in all, JERSEY BOYS tells a solid story, is flawlessly filmed, and features strong acting performances from everyone involved. It also features classic music from The Four Seasons.

This summer at the movies, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more satisfying movie experience.

And that’s because it’s more than just a story about a band. It’s about friendship, family, loyalty, and fighting for what you want even when those around you fight against you. Christopher Walken’s Gyp utters a telling line in this one, “Do the work and everything follows.” Hard work pays off. That’s usually the case. And the harder one works the harder it gets, but you keep going anyway.

Big Girls Don’t Cry. Neither do JERSEY BOYS.

—END—

 

 

 

 

SECOND LOOK: LES MISERABLES (2012)

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les-mis-posterSECOND LOOK:  LES MISERABLES (2012)

By Michael Arruda

 

 

I was pretty tough on LES MISERABLES (2013) when I reviewed it last year for this blog.  I think my title was, LES MISFIRE?

 

To be fair, I didn’t dislike LES MISERABLES when I saw it in the theater.  I simply was disappointed it wasn’t better, and I think it came across in my review that I wasn’t all that crazy about it. 

 

Anyway, I saw it again recently on DVD, and I have to say, I did enjoy it better the second time around.

 

While my biggest criticisms remain the same- that the film seemed to lack a soul, that it came off as completely gloomy and dark with the theme of redemption noticeably absent, and that the pacing seemed off, in that things moved too quickly without natural breaks in between scenes and songs, I did appreciate more about the film the second time around.  I even found Russell Crowe’s singing somewhat more tolerable.

 

I love the stage musical LES MISERABLES, and I suppose any film version wouldn’t be able to match the spectacle of how it plays on the stage.  This film version by director Tom Hooper didn’t even seem to try.  It dove right into a brutal realism that somehow didn’t work as well as it should have.  I mean, both Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway looked phenomenal in their misery, but this gritty heavy realism came off as too dark for the bulk of the movie and detracted from the musical numbers.  It’s a case where Jean Valjean and Fantine looked so beaten and emaciated that it was difficult at times to suspend disbelief and accept them breaking into song.  The realism also made for some harsh musical numbers. 

 

I still thoroughly enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine.  Both their acting performances and singing voices were amazing.  Russell Crowe, on the other hand, was a different story.  I found his voice grating when I saw the movie the first time.  I found it slightly less harsh this time around.  I also enjoyed Crowe’s performance as Javert better the second time around and found him to be a much more dominant character than when I saw it the first time. 

 

I still was not wowed by Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, which still surprises me, since usually I enjoy her a lot.  And although his singing voice was among the best in the movie, Eddie Redmayne didn’t blow me out of the water as Marius either.

 

And the pacing of the film definitely slows down during the third act.

 

Yet, the film looked just as amazing on DVD as it did on the big screen.  Not much was lost in terms of picture quality.

 

Parts of the story also worked better for me the second time.  The blockade sequence near the end I thought fell flat on the big screen.  I found it more compelling this time around.  I remember growing restless in the theater at this point in the movie, and this wasn’t a problem in the comfort of my living room.  The chase storyline between Jean Valjean and Javert also played better at home, perhaps because of the intimacy of the smaller screen.

 

So, is LES MISERABLES worth your time on DVD? 

 

Well, it certainly provides grand entertainment, and it does a pretty nice job bringing the musical to life.  It remains to be seen whether or not making it darker, grittier, and more depressing than the stage musical was a good idea.  I wasn’t nuts about this interpretation, mostly because the sense of hope found throughout the musical seems to be lost here.  But this wasn’t enough to ruin the movie for me.

 

And with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway leading the way, and Russell Crowe doing the same, especially when he’s not singing, the cast also excels. While I do have a problem with the dark take this movie has on the story, I have to admit that I appreciated its dramatic elements better the second time around.

 

LES MISERABLES, the 2012 movie version, in spite of its flaws, is still an engaging musical and certainly worth a look.

 

—END—