Movie Review ~ Encanto

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Colombian girl has to face the frustration of being the only member of her family without magical powers.

Stars: Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Wilmer Valderrama, Adassa, Diane Guerrero, Mauro Castillo, Angie Cepeda, Jessica Darrow, Rhenzy Feliz, Carolina Gaitán, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Maluma

Directors: Jared Bush, Byron Howard,

Co Director: Charise Castro Smith

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  With the release of Encanto, a milestone is reached for Walt Disney Animation Studios.  This spirited musical bursting with color and tuneful songs is the 60th feature film released by the legendary animation division.  Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, the studio has had its fair share of high and low points over the ensuing 75 years and even acquiring animation pioneer Pixar couldn’t backburner their own output.  Producing many bona fide hits and Oscar winners, not to mention an array of dazzling shorts to proceed their many full-length movies, Walt Disney Animation Studios is consistently pushing the boundaries on exploring new cultures and experiences that reach out to audiences globally and Encanto is no different.

Deep in the heart of the Columbian mountains, there is a town that was created as a refuge during a time of war through the power of a miracle gift the villagers come to know as the Encanto.  The original family that started the town, the Madrigals, were blessed with an additional gift. Each Madrigal has had a special talent bestowed upon them when they reached a young age.  Some had strength, some could speak to animals, some could heal through food, each endowment was unique and often brought forth something that was already inside the person.  Every Madrigal was given this gift…except for Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz, In the Heights) who failed to receive one during her ceremony and has never known why. 

It’s during the newest ceremony for her young cousin and the festivities surrounding his new ability that fissures within both the figurative magic and literal house the magic built begin to appear, causing Mirabel to investigate the history of her family further.  Clues lead her down a path that point her toward an uncle (John Leguizamo, The Night Clerk) who fell out of favor with Abuela Alma Madrigal, the matriarch of the clan, and is not spoken of anymore and the possibility that he may be affecting the current state of the miracle.  With the family seen as a source of strength for the town, Abuela Alma is pressured to keep any hints of weakness within her children and grandchildren under wraps. Consequently, Mirabel is forced to take drastic measures if she hopes to use ordinary means to accomplish an extraordinary mission.

Accompanied by a series of tuneful songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda (already having quite the good November having just released his feature directional debut tick, tick…BOOM! on Netflix last week) that are pleasing to the ear but never quite get under your skin, Encanto bursts with color and movement from the beginning.  I’m always amazed how the animators seem to find new hues in the rainbow with each film they debut, and every swirl of shaded pastel or dash of a vibrant primary palette makes your eyes bug out a little further.  There were a few moments during Encanto’s more action heavy moments that have such specific sequences of events where I wondered how long it took to storyboard the movements before the animation could happen.  It’s no wonder these films often can take years to finish. 

Directors Jared Bush & Byron Howard’s 2106 film Zootopia won an Oscar as Best Animated Feature for Disney and for a very good reason.  The animation was detailed and complex and the story supported it all with an interesting plot that balanced developed characters with some truly hilarious moments.  Much of those same elements are on display here.  The characters in Encanto feel emotionally whole and formed as humans, rather than cartoons.  When it does delve into more of the humorous parts, it is legitimately funny, and the belly laughs that emerge feel like they are emanating from a satisfying place.  While the voice acting is on target, I couldn’t help but feel like some of the voices were auto pitched to sound younger…but I can’t confirm that.

I don’t find it as easy to sit through animated films as I did even five years ago, and I think it’s because they start to all blend together after a while.  That isn’t the case with Encanto which has the aura of a bold fragrance which pleasantly lingers long after you’ve left the theater.  Adults as well as kids will find something to enjoy within the frames and kudos to Disney for continuing their efforts to travel the world in search of the next story and culture to explore.

Movie Review ~ tick, tick…BOOM!

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The Facts:

Synopsis: On the cusp of his 30th birthday, a promising young theater composer navigates love, friendship, and the pressures to create something great before time runs out.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Bradley Whitford, MJ Rodriguez, Richard Kind, Judith Light, Ben Ross

Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  As a life-long RENThead and a true RENT-aholic*, I was already quite familiar with the 2001 off-Broadway production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! before it was made into a Netflix movie by musical theater Swiss Army Man Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I was also aware that Miranda had starred in a smaller concert version of the show which seemed like a natural fit for him.  Miranda, the multiple award-winning composer/lyricist behind In the Heights and the behemoth known as Hamilton was greatly influenced by RENT’s late composer, and the two have lead strikingly similar career paths.  It’s not hard to see how Larson might have had the same type of trajectory as Miranda has rightfully enjoyed had he not passed away so tragically at age 35. 

I had reached a bit of a Miranda saturation point when this film was announced and if I’m being really real with you (like, really really real), tick, tick…BOOM!! always felt like a minor cash-in on RENT’s juggernaut rocket ship took off.  What started as a solo show by Larson was adapted into a one-act play that was a small success off-Broadway but nothing on the scale that RENT had.  It went on to do quite well regionally but it served more to show that Larson was a good songwriter from the start…but that even good songwriters wrote some clunkers at the beginning as well.  The impending arrival of the movie didn’t set off any major bells or whistles to me because it wasn’t one I felt strongly about either way.

So, take it from that perspective as I write that in the days since I’ve seen tick, tick…BOOM! I’ve been unable to get it out of my head, and not just the music.  The performances given by the cast Miranda has assembled and what the director has brought to the screen surpasses anything that had been put onstage before.  Screenwriter Steven Levenson bounces back from the disastrously bad adaptation of Dear Evan Hanson with a positively inspired take on how to further mold what was once a one-man show.  Miranda takes all of these elements and then puts a Broadway polish on it all, the cherry on the top of what is already a musical theater fan’s starry-eyed dream come true.

While the 2001 stage version wasn’t as direct, the movie layers the real-life story of Larson’s life as a struggling artist over the existing script and it amazingly works.  I wasn’t sure at first how much I wanted to see Larson’s life essentially made into a musical, an existing musical even, but everyone involved treats it with such respect, grace, and dignity that it doesn’t come off as either too serious or overly sentimental.  This is sincere moviemaking through and through and if it had leaned in either direction too far it would have collapsed in on itself.  Levenson’s screenplay is sturdy enough to hold together.

The glue, or cement rather, that solidifies it though is Andrew Garfield’s mesmerizing performance as Jonathan in what is without a doubt career-best work for the actor.  Put aside the fantastic dramatics he brings to the more emotional side of the character but from all the documentaries, books, film clips, etc. I’ve seen over the years in conjunction with RENT, Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) has Larson the person down to an eerie “T”.  He looks like the composer and easily conveys the charm everyone that knew him always speaks of.  And when he’s not speaking, his singing is first rate.  All the singing in the film is soaring and, in another extremely smart move, Miranda switches between Garfield as Larson performing the show with an onstage cast (including Bad Boys for Life’s Vanessa Hudgens and Broadway powerhouse leading man Joshua Henry, Winter’s Tale) and what are often their “real-life” (movie-wise) counterparts, Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) as girlfriend Susan and Robin de Jesus (The Boys in the Band) as Michael.

Much of the film (and the play) is leading to Larson’s composition of “the song”, a powerhouse ballad he’s been trying to create for his new show.  Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (played by The Cabin in the Woods’s Bradley Whitford sometimes and the real man himself on voicemails) encouraged Larson to keep writing and, if you believe the musical, it’s his advice that kept him searching for this major movie moment.  It’s very much worth waiting for and what existed onstage as a satisfying 11 o’clock number for an actress turns into something far more surprising here.  Then there’s even more movie to come.  I won’t spoil it but Miranda and company continue to blur the lines between what is the solo show, the musical, and the movie musical in clever ways throughout. 

Sure, the musical retains at least one of the songs that fails pretty spectacularly (mostly because it sounds achingly like the title song from RENT) but then again you have to remember this was written first.  Of all the movie musicals that have been released lately, this might be my absolute favorite in terms of overall success in transition from stage to screen.  It’s hard to expand these worlds and while In the Heights worked wonders with its transition, what Levenson and Miranda have accomplished here with tick, tick…BOOM! is sort of amazing.  The show now lives on in another completely new form separate from the original creation by Larson and the updated version reconstituted after his Pulitzer Prize winning musical became a revolutionary touchstone.  I would never be so bold as to make a statement like “Jonathan Larson would have loved this.” but I can say that as someone that was so moved (and changed) by the work that Larson has put forth and a fan of his for decades, this was a monumental undertaking with an exceptional execution.  Do not miss this one.

*What’s the difference between a RENThead and a RENT-aholic?  Well, RENTheads are fans of the show that have seen it more than five times and have won the lottery to sit in the front two rows at least once.  RENT-aholics have traveled across more than two state lines to see the show from any vantage point…and yes, I’m certified as both…and not just in NYC!

Movie Review ~ In the Heights

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Lights up on Washington Heights, a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big.

Stars: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  It’s been good to get out of the house and see several movies in the theaters these past weeks.  I didn’t think I’d be able to say that as recently as a few months ago but the experience has been a welcoming one.  As much as I love going to the movies and the feeling of getting the rush of excitement as the lights go down before any expectations can be met or missed, some small part of me aches for the moments of magic that are rarely found amidst the CGI created worlds of fiction.  I used to chalk it up to childhood nostalgia for films of my youth setting an unrealistic bar no modern film could ever hope to meet, but every now and then a movie, a performance, a scene, a look, just sends this wave of, and forgive me if this is schmaltzy, serenity over me and I recognize it as a familiar emotion I felt when I was much younger. 

The film version of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical In the Heights was not the first movie I saw in theaters since they reopened and after I was fully vaccinated.  It was not a stage show I was a fan of and my coolness toward it was a chief reason I avoided Lin-Manuel Miranda’s next show, Hamilton (ever heard of it?), believing I’d again leave the theater unaffected after the massive hype. (Of course, like the rest of the world I’m a Hamil-fan)  Also, I’ll be totally honest and say that Miranda himself, pure genius and goodhearted soul though he is, had failed to win me over after all the years of his shameless mugging at awards shows.  As a fan of musicals and, of course, film musicals I was looking forward to In the Heights but it wasn’t one I was super busting down the theater door to get to.  So how is it that the feeling I described above, the movie magic moment, hit me like a ton of bricks before anyone had spoken a word?

Yes, it’s true.  The moment the Warner Brothers logo came onscreen and we see a first glimpse of NY’s Washington Heights neighborhood through the lens of cinematographer Alice Brooks (Jem and the Holograms), I felt my face flush and eyes tingle with the threat of, could it be?, actual tears.  My shoulders relaxed down and my stomach flipped over.  What exactly was happening here?  While I can attribute some of my emotions to just being a big softie in general (don’t spread that around), there was something almost imperceptibly moving about the film in its simple opening moments. That feeling remained for the rest of this captivating modern musical.  It’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s joyous, and it’s a perfect film to see on the big screen if you can make it happen. 

Taking over the role Miranda created and played onstage, Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born) is Usnavi, the owner of a corner bodega in an ordinary neighborhood of Washington Heights with dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic and restoring the bar his father owned before immigrating to the U.S.  With no immediate family ties to keep him there, all he worries about is the elderly woman who raised him, “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz, The Place Beyond the Pines), and his young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV, Vampires vs. the Bronx) who lives with his troubled father (an almost unrecognizable Marc Anthony).  Just as he makes up his mind to head back to the D.R. and bring the two with him, the chance of a relationship with hairdresser Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) whom he loved from afar for years puts all of that into question.

Over the course of several days, Usnavi is the nucleus around which numerous characters and stories circle.  We don’t see the world of Washington Heights totally through his eyes but he is the driving force of the piece, and his storyline is pivotal in the lives of many of his neighbors and close friends.  Nina (Leslie Grace), the daughter of the proprietor of a family-run cab company, has returned home from her first year at an Ivy League college with doubts on returning. As she rekindles a romance with Benny (Corey Hawkins, BlacKkKlansman) an employee of her father’s, Kevin (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector) tries to persuade his child to seize the opportunity she has been afforded through her hard work and his sacrifice.  The high cost of rent has forced salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) to move her business to another borough, upsetting her regular clientele.  With dreams of something more than working in a salon, Vanessa is hoping to secure an apartment closer to Manhattan where she can pursue her passion in fashion design, but her current address is making this hard to achieve.

When a winning lottery ticket is sold at Usnavi’s bodega with a payout of $96,000, it changes and challenges the dreams of many of the neighborhood residents right about the time a massive blackout hits their part of the city, plunging their nights into total darkness and asking them to survive in the sweltering heat.  As the temperature rises, so do the stakes for every kind of relationship that exists in the close-knit neighborhood, leading to a cathartic finale which feels like the breath of fresh air type of release we all could use right about now.  Utilizing newly implemented bookends created for the film was a wise choice by screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (who also wrote the original musical) because onstage it’s easy to just hit the audience with a wall of music right away.  Opting to ease into it instead reinforces Usnavi’s role as the narrator and removes him having to speak directly to the camera which robs some of the realism that helps propel the movie forward emotionally.

Oh, the music.  I forgot to mention the music.  I’m almost convinced that In the Heights would work just as well with the music removed (not that I’d want that) but the music is a whole other piece to dissect that I won’t delve as deep into.  I will say that Miranda had to trim or remove a number of songs and that frees the movie to open up more and thereby showcase the stronger pieces and voices.  Like onstage, the number “96,000” is an absolute showstopper and I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences in the theater or at home applaud when it’s over.  Set at a local pool (filmed on location at the Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights) it’s intricately choreographed like a Busby Berkeley musical with so much energy emanating from the screen I swear I was nearly levitating in my seat by the time it was over.

Even more than the staging, it’s one of the best sung films musicals I’ve seen in quite some time.  Barrera and Grace have fantastic voices and are pitch perfect in the acting department as well, same goes for Hawkins and the always under-utilized Smits who is so good they combined two roles in the stage musical to create this one for him.  The original Mimi in the Broadway cast of RENT, Rubin-Vega regrettably doesn’t show up in film much but is a ball of fire as the gossipy hairdresser and I loved that Hudes changed her relationship with her business partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) and also made them romantically involved.  You have to wait a bit for Rubin-Vega to get her moment in the spotlight due to some rearrangement of material but it’s worth it when it arrives.

The biggest names to remember associated with the movie version of In the Heights are Ramos and Merediz.  Not only are they going to nab Oscar nominations for their work but Merediz is going to be fighting off other nominees to claim her Best Supporting Actress award for the next six months.  As the kindly “abuela” to all the neighborhood in one way or another, Merediz is the only Broadway actor to recreate their role onscreen and it’s not hard to see why.  The role is played to perfection and her big number, “Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith)” is not only beautifully staged by director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) but performed with the kind of raw emotion and honesty that is next to impossible to capture without adornment on film.  For his efforts, Ramos is delivering the kind of star making performance that comes along rarely in film, perhaps he learned a trick or two from working with Lady Gaga on A Star is Born.   It only takes a few frames of film to understand he possesses the charisma and natural talent to go a long way past the highs In the Heights will surely take him.

Like the stage show, the film does feel overly episodic at times and storylines are picked up and dropped seemingly at random, but that’s a small nitpick in what is generally a free-flowing movie that doesn’t feel like it clocks in at nearly two and a half hours.  And I suppose I could mention that while it is lovely to look at in the moment, a song that defies the law of gravity feels a tad out of place and overly effects-laden when the rest of the film is largely grounded in the realism of the neighborhood…albeit with a little magic thrown in here and there. 

Delayed from its original release date of June 2020, Warner Brothers could have released this one at any time during the past year, but they decided to wait until the time was right…and the time is absolutely right for In the Heights to make its debut.  With the country experiencing a heatwave and the chill of the air-conditioned movie theaters beckoning (it will also be available on HBOMax), I can see In the Heights being a favored destination for many over the coming weeks.  Do yourself a favor, a kindness even, and see it on the big screen.

The Silver Bullet ~ In the Heights



Synopsis
:  A bodega owner has mixed feelings about closing his store and retiring to the Dominican Republic after inheriting his grandmother’s fortune.

Release Date: June 26, 2020

Thoughts: By now, most fans of the musical phenomenon Hamilton are well-aware of creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s previous Broadway success story, In the Heights.  Also a celebrated piece of theatrical entertainment and winner of multiple awards, when I saw the show in its national tour it didn’t quite land with me as much as I thought it would.  That’s why I’m especially interested to see the film adaptation arriving next summer which is getting a flashy treatment from Warner Brothers.  I think this is going to transfer well to the screen and by the looks of the first trailer of the big-time movie musical directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and starring Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born) taking on the role Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) originated, this could be a hot ticket come June.  While we wait for the inevitable film version of Hamilton, fingers crossed In the Heights shows how easy it is for Miranda’s work to soar in a different medium.

Movie Review ~ Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles


The Facts
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Synopsis: The origin story behind one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals and its creative roots in early 1960s New York, when “tradition” was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving.

Stars: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Austin Pendleton, Fran Lebowitz, Michael Bernardi, Jerry Bock, Danny Burstein, Joey Grey, Josh Mostel, Harvey Fierstein, Topol, Harold Prince

Director: Max Lewkowicz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: A funny thing happens to me anytime I hear someone bring up the musical Fiddler on the Roof. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I stop in my tracks, get completely serious, and say “I. Love. That. Show.” It’s not being dramatic, it’s not overstating the truth…it’s just fact. For a while I used to say it was my guilty pleasure show…until I realized that I’d never seen a bad production of it and there were quite a few others than shared in my sentiment. In the world of theater, it seems that you either love Fiddler, you were in Fiddler, or both.

For the last 55 years, the Tony winning show inspired by the tales of Sholem Aleichem with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein hasn’t gone a single day without being performed somewhere in the world. Ponder that for a moment. Every day, for over a half century, somewhere on earth, an audience experienced the musical set in a Russian shtetl in 1905 about a milkman named Tevye and his family. A little over a month ago, I caught the new Broadway tour of the 2015 revival of the show and fell in love with it all over again. Yes, the first act is longer than most Adam Sandler movies (100 minutes) and by this point there’s hardly a person in the world that hasn’t “deedle deedle dum’ed” their way through a shower rendition of ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ but the show continues to work like gangbusters.

Inspired to learn a bit more about the show, I tracked down a copy of Barbara Isenberg’s excellent 2015 book ‘Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical’ right around the same time I got wind of this documentary. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is part creation story and part time capsule, showing not just the genesis and lasting impact of the musical but also the cultural climate it sprung out of. While many of the stories from the book are repeated in the movie, both have their own golden nuggets that make them a must for any Fiddler fan.

Clearly, the admirers are plentiful and endure along with the show, including a plethora of familiar stars of stage and screen that are interviewed by director Max Lewkowicz. Using archive interviews with the creators (Stein and Bock have passed away) and having family members fill in some narrative gaps, the film is often a straight-forward ‘this is how we made it’ charting of how the piece developed. Those interested in Broadway history will find many recognizable names mentioned as the show went from a poorly reviewed tryout in Washington D.C. to becoming a global phenomenon that continues to sell out theaters whenever it plays in whatever language it’s been adapted to.  Yet before we get to how the writers came up with the songs and how director/choreographer Jerome Robbins devised the inventive dances, Lewkowicz takes audiences on a journey through the early ’60s and the mood the country was in when the Fiddler crew was setting up shop.  It’s valuable to see where the authors were coming from and what might have influenced them, not just in that point in history but in their own personal remembrances.

While the book ultimately has some more dishy asides about the shenanigans that went on offstage and original Tevye Zero Mostel’s tendency toward the unpredictable onstage, the documentary has its own share of memorable moments. I found the audio clips from the first school production to be incredibly moving. As the show was still playing its original run on Broadway, a inner city NYC school was granted the rights by the creators as a way to demonstrate that, though the show was about Jews, its message was universal. The production was met with protests by the religious on both sides, each wonder the appropriateness of someone outside of the Jewish heritage going through a show that has several faith-based observances serving as key moments.  Hearing the young cast sing the music is remarkable. Try to stave off the chills.

Starting out strong by going into a fairly detailed deep dive into the politics and temperature in place when the musical was first created, Lewkowicz stretches things a bit too far by looping in everyone’s favorite Pulitzer Prize winner, Lin-Manual Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) for some on-camera time. Now, I’m fan of what Miranda did for Broadway with Hamilton and hold that piece of theater up as the highest of high bars, but did we really need his appearance talking about his wedding reception video that went viral (a well-orchestrated viral, I might add) where he got family and friends to sing ‘To Life’? Honestly? No. It feels like a strange diversion, an unfocused detour after such a keen honing in on more related topics.  I know it’s included to show how the music continues to inspire but it comes off as a chance for Miranda to pat himself on the back for devising the surprise for his bride.  So it smacks ever so slightly of inclusion for name value alone.

At a brief 92 minutes, there’s a bounty of information here for the casual fan and for those that have listened to the cast recording thousands of time. It’s nice to hear from Topol, the Oscar-nominated star of the movie who played Tevye onstage before and after his silver screen performance. Seeing him play the role onstage several years ago, I’m not ashamed to admit I burst ino tears the moment he said his first line. I would have liked to see a bit more comparisons between the Fiddler productions throughout the years, from the revised version that played Broadway in 2004 (I saw Harvey Fierstein as Tevye…another unexpected delight), the most recent revival from 2015, or from the current production playing off-Broadway performed entirely in Yiddish.  Even so, there are clips from a number of international productions, illustrating again the ease in which the show crosses through languages and interpretations.

Thanks to the judicious editing by Lewkowicz and the addition of some nice animations to tie passages together, it’s a well-paced watch. Engaging and entertaining but, like it’s subject, over in the blink of an eye, Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles may follow the same structure as many making-of documentaries but it gives the audience something extra. By looking at the bigger picture surrounding the show and how it has had an impact, it makes an oft-done musical seem as relevant today as ever before.

Movie Review ~ Mary Poppins Returns


The Facts
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Synopsis: Decades after her original visit, the magical nanny returns to help the Banks siblings and Michael’s children through a difficult time in their lives.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The journey to make Mary Poppins in 1964 was so fraught with tension and hard feelings that it’s no wonder it took 54 years for a sequel to make its way into theaters. If you don’t believe me, check out the entertaining Saving Mr. Banks for a little history lesson…however revisionist it may seem to be.  What child didn’t grow up seeing the titular magical nanny educate the Banks children and bring order to their family while teaching the biggest lesson of all to their workaholic father? I vividly remember seeing it not only in my house but at school on special occasions when they’d get out an old reel-to-reel projector and gigantic screen.

Over the years the popularity of P.L. Travers creation never really went away, even inspiring a long-running West End and Broadway musical that’s now making the rounds in a community theater near you. You can’t keep the old girl down and in 2018 she’s returned in an all new sequel that’s a surprisingly spry near-equal to its half-century old predecessor. The Walt Disney Company took a huge gamble in dusting off this treasured property and turning it over to director Rob Marshall and it has paid off handsomely; Mary Poppins Returns is a true movie event, a hard-working winning combination of fantasy, music, and heart-tugging emotion.

It’s been thirty years since Jane and Michael Banks spent a wondrous few weeks with Mary Poppins but life at #17 Cherry Tree Lane has moved on. Having recently lost his wife, Michael (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) now lives in his family home with his three children and gets the occasional visit from Jane (Emily Mortimer, Hugo) who has followed in her mother’s footsteps and continued the fight for equality for all. When the bank threatens to foreclose on his house and gives them less than a week to come up with the money all hopes seems lost…until a familiar figure appears from the sky.

Making her grand entrance clutching a kite, Mary Poppins (the divine Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place) has lost none of her dry wit and charming aloofness. She soon sets up shop with the new generation of Banks children while keeping her eye on Jane and Michael as they scramble to find a lost set of bank bonds that could get them out of debt. While their father worries about their future, Mary Poppins helps his children adjust to the present through adventures in undersea realms, at the upside-down dwelling of Mary’s cousin Topsy (a wack-a-doodle Meryl Streep, Hope Springs), and in the painting on a porcelain pot.

Having directed the film versions of Chicago, Nine, and Into the Woods, Marshall knows his way around a movie musical but this is far and away his most accomplished and polished work to date. With the old-school appeal of a Hollywood song and dance spectacular, Mary Poppins Returns is the kind of throwback everything-including-the-kitchen-sink experience they just don’t bother to make anymore. Disney and Marshall had the good sense to give audiences exactly what they want in a sequel to a cherished classic…and then some. While not a remake of Mary Poppins per se, it does seem to hit the same beats as that earlier film even down to a splendid animated sequence and a visit to one of her zany relatives.

Even if Marc Shaiman’s songs don’t stay in the brain quite as well as the tunes created by the Sherman Brothers, they feel like they exist within the same universe and are performed with exuberance by Blunt and company. There’s no ‘Feed the Birds’ level accomplishment here but ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ stirs the right amount of feelings and ‘A Cover Is Not The Book’ is a clever bit of wordplay that the Sherman Brothers would get a kick out of. Streep’s oddball ‘Turning Turtle’ is something only she could pull off and Whishaw’s plaintive ‘A Conversation’ gives the actor a nice jumping off point early on in the film. Marshall and his co-choreographer John DeLuca also nicely avoid the trappings of filming huge musical numbers for the screen by letting the audience see the entire company dancing rather than always cutting into close-ups. ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ arrives late in the game but is a true show-stopper.

If the film makes one miscalculation, it’s in the misappropriation of time given to Lin-Manuel Miranda (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) as Jack, a lamplighter friend of Mary’s that’s a stand-in for Bert the chimney sweep from the first film. Whereas Dick Van Dyke’s Bert was someone that occasionally popped up in the action, it feels like Jack is shoehorned into the plot at every turn and it begins to take away from the time we want to spend with Mary and the Banks family. At times, Jack becomes the driving force of play and that made the movie feel like it was veering too far in the wrong direction.

Still, it’s hard to argue that Blunt commands the movie in no uncertain terms whenever she’s even close to the screen. I personally think Blunt is the perfect choice for any part she turns up in but here there’s a real chemistry between actress and role that is rarely seen. No one is going to erase the performance of Julie Andrews from our memory and Blunt doesn’t even try to recreate that particular take on the role. Smartly choosing to give Mary an updated look that sets her apart from her 1964 appearance, Blunt’s Mary is just as staunch as Andrews but doesn’t soften quite as easily. She’s also riotously funny with her droll line readings and incredulity at the state of affairs she encounters upon her return. Andrews won an Oscar for her work and I expect Blunt will get a nomination as well.

Filling out the cast is Colin Firth (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) playing a rare villain role as a bank manager eager to claim the Banks house, Julie Walters (Paddington) as put-upon maid Ellen, David Warner (Waxwork) as Admiral Boom, and Angela Lansbury (Beauty and the Beast) as a wise Balloon Lady with a magical touch of her own. Then there’s Van Dyke (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) dancing up a storm and keep your eyes out for the original Jane Banks, Karen Dotrice, making a cameo outside of Cherry Tree Lane.

Bound to rake in some serious money this holiday season, Mary Poppins Returns is that rare sequel that feels like it wasn’t done for the money but for the greater good. I know it’s all about the bottom line but this is one film that feels like it could heal what ails you…even if just for two and a half hours.

Oscar Nominees: Best Original Song

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Every day from now until the Oscars on Sunday, February 26 I’m going to deconstruct the nominees in each category. I’ll give you their history with the Academy, some extra thoughts on each nominee/film, who was snubbed, and what you might consider before choosing them in your office pool.

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Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: Right off the bat, let me say that I wish there was a rule that there could only be one nominee per film…but that’s sour grapes on my part because, well, read on.  The first of two songs nominated from La La Land is arguably the better of the pair, though it’s also the one that does more to solidify Emma Stone’s hopes of winning an Oscar than its own.  The 11 o’clock number for Stone’s struggling actress character, it’s got a good bridge but not much of a hook.  Truth be told, it’s largely due to Stone’s earnestly honest performance of it that makes it memorable.  Taken out of context on the live broadcast (and maybe sung by someone other than Stone), I’m wondering how strong it will feel.

Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: La La Land‘s second nomination is for the song featured heavy in the trailers and promo clips.  It’s an ear-worm of an anthem, but not a terribly tuneful or great one.  Score composer Justin Hurwitz wisely interspersed the song generously throughout the film and Ryan Gosling’s laid back jazz musician actually made me think he was coming up with the words right there on the spot.  Don’t forget that Hollywood LOVES to reward material that involves them in some way and a song called ‘City of Stars’ in a movie title La La Land hits the double target for voters that can’t get enough of their own back-patting. If neither film from La La Land takes the trophy, don’t feel too bad for composers/lyricists Pasek and Paul, they have Dear Evan Hansen, a sizable hit on Broadway looking likely to win them a Tony.

Nominee: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Song: ‘How Far I’ll Go’ from Moana
Oscar History: First time nominee
Thoughts: I’m just going to say it and I don’t care if you hate it.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is possibly the most overexposed celebrity alive today and if his song from Moana wins it will be largely due to the Hamilton fever that has taken over both coasts over the last two years.  There’s no doubt that Miranda is musically gifted and winning an Oscar here would make him the youngest EGOT winner ever (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) but the man has already won everything under the sun (even a Pulitzer!) for Hamilton…voters are either going to want to make it a clean sweep or they’ll think Miranda has filled enough shelf space this year with other statuettes.  That being said, while Moana and this song aren’t my favorite in the Disney canon, it surely makes for a positive message for young girls in that it teaches them they don’t need to pine for a prince to achieve the impossible.

Nominee: Justin Timberlake, Max Martin, Shellback
Song: ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from Trolls
Oscar History: First time nominees
Thoughts: Like Pharrel’s ‘Happy’ from a few years back, this song from Trolls is the kind of get up and shake your groove thing song that will make its performance one to look forward to.  If La La Land‘s two songs split the vote and Miranda Mania doesn’t bring Moana to the winner circle, this could (and, really, should) walk away the winner. The only caveat I can see is that this one has gotten the most radio air time and if listeners/voters are sick of hearing it every day in their gym it might make it harder for them to cast a vote for it to win.  It’s a fun song with good lyrics and a great hook…a definite party song.

Nominee: J. Ralph & Sting
Song: ‘The Empty Chair’ from Jim: The James Foley Story
Oscar History: Ralph has been nominated twice before, last year for Racing Extinction and in 2013 for Chasing Ice.  Sting has been nominated three times before, for Cold Mountain, Kate & Leopold, and The Emperor’s New Groove.
Thoughts: When the nominations for Best Original Song rolled out, I can imagine many people having to blink a few times when they saw this nomination appear on screen.  Looking over all the nominees, this is still the biggest WTF moment but digging deeper maybe it was wrong to count this one out in the first place.  Both Sting and J. Ralph have been nominated multiple times in this category and Sting especially has a lot of good friends within the Academy.  Trouble is, the song is a bit of a downer as is the documentary it’s pulled from so we could be in for a bathroom break once Sting takes the stage to perform it.  The movie didn’t get much traction…in fact, I didn’t even remember that I had SEEN this movie already, having caught it when it was broadcast on HBO earlier this year.

Missed Opportunity:

Should Been Nominated: ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ from Sing Street
Why?: Oh my goodness I was SO hoping this song (or any song, for that matter) from Sing Street would make it into the nominations.  The movie has the best songs of the year in my book and any one of them could be placed in the list of nominees and outshone its competition.  Director John Carney’s previous two wide released films (Once and Begin Again) snagged nominations and Once actually won.  I think the music here is better than both of them so it’s a damn shame a song like the favored ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ couldn’t rustle enough votes to see its name announced on Oscar night.  

In my book, the Best Song of the year wasn’t even nominated.  Instead we’re left with two languid songs from the first original musical produced in Hollywood in decades, a pretty good song from a hotter than hot composer, a party anthem destined to be played in roller rinks for eternity, and a Sting track that feels like a B-Side.  So…while I’d give it to the Trolls song I’m going to go with ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land for the win.  (By the way, all five nominees were better than Sam Smith’s dreadful winning song from last year!)