Mary Poppins Returns

For a nostalgia junkie like me, this premise was catnip, with a potential for disaster. The original “Mary Poppins” is one of the pivotal films of my childhood.  It was the one movie that I distinctly remember my grandmother taking me to. I also recall listening to the soundtrack with my friend Kathy Callen and singing the words from the songs, because in those days there was no home video, we relived the movie through the music. So I wanted to revisit the characters and the setting of the movie, but there is always trepidation when a sequel comes along, especially when it if fifty plus years later. As things worked out, we are all in good hands. Rob Marshall has made a career out of bringing musicals to the screen and this original story with new songs fills our expectations in a number of ways.

The first thing the movie gets right is the tone of the story. There is some melancholy over a Mother who has passed, a family on the brink of financial ruin, and some grown ups who have forgotten what it is to be imaginative. Jane and Michael Banks are all grown up and face some adult problems, and Mary Poppins is really there for them. Michael’s children are doing their best to be mature in the face of their family upheavals, but it is taking a massive toll on their childhood. When Mary Poppins drops out of the sky and into their lives, they are not being given a chance to grow up, but rather, to enjoy a childhood they might lose. OK, that’s the serious part and it fades into the background quickly to give the main focus of the film full range. This movie is a visual confection, designed to entertain us with old fashioned story telling and traditional film making. An occasional boost from computer technology is present, but you never get the idea that this is a series of ones and zeros being manipulated to show us something that can’t possibly be there. I know that the London Clock Tower was not used an actual location, but because so much of the film relies on studio backstreets and real sets, the magic sells much more readily. Kites and Umbrellas are real, so it’s OK that the Dance Hall is a digital fabrication.

There is a nice chunk of the story told in animation, and it was such a pleasure to see traditional two dimensional line drawings and cartoon characters. Shamus the Coachman and Clyde the Horse are refreshingly old fashioned characters that look like they could have been part of the original film. They also lack the irony that so many comic moments in a contemporary film comedy would require. If we had just had the animation section of the movie, this would be a delight. Mary and Jack, dance and cavort with penguins and a variety of other critters in a show piece dance number that is all flash and fun. The cotton candy the children are indulging in while watching is exactly what I felt like I was consuming. Something sweet, light and airy, and it was utterly delicious. If there are critics of this film ( and I know there will be), I suspect one of their complaints will be how this movie mines the beats of the first film, in much the way “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” copied the original. There is an extended animated sequence as noted, there is also a visit to an eccentric relative of Mary Poppins to try to address a problem and a light-hearted comic sequence ensues. We don’t have chimney sweeps, but we do get lamplighters who also wear dark vestments and dance on high with props, in ths case, bicycles rather than brooms. Instead of the suffragette that the original Mrs. Banks was, Jane is some kind of labor organizer. Thankfully, just as in the original, we are spared that as backstory and it is simply a characteristic to add color to the character.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a suitable performer for this film, he has talent and charisma enough to hold the screen when it is his. I was very much surprised to notice that this talented, Tony Award winning, Academy Award Nominated songwriter, contributed only his voice to the songs featured in the film. If I have any reservations about the movie it is that the songs are serviceable and nice but not memorable. There is nothing equivalent to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or “Feed the Birds” or”Supercalifragalisticexpealidocious”.  Maybe with subsequent viewings, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and “A Cover is not the Book” could in fact be hum-able and repeated, but it is a little too early to tell.

The not so secret weapon of this movie is Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins. Whatever vocal skills she has, and they are considerable, she could hardly match Julie Andrews, so she doesn’t really need to try. She adds a different characteristic to the film. Mary’s flintiness falls away on a regular basis and she enthusiastically engages in the nonsense songs as joyfully as the children or Jack, the character played by Miranda. She sings beautifully and she dances with vigor and she looks the part the whole time. Mary Poppins is not the emotional center of the film, she is the initiator and reflector of the emotions that are being felt by others and Blunt is quietly and forcefully in control, even when she acts out. I thought she was fantastic in “A Quiet Place” earlier this year, this is a completely different performance but it is just as noteworthy. She may end up competing with herself in the Awards season.

The movie is also filled with other performers who manage to get a little extra into the movie. Meryl Streep doesn’t really need to be here but she worked with Marshall before and she is in this just long enough and not any more. Angela Lansbury and Julie Walters also add a bit of English charm to the story. Walters is amusing and Lansbury is just the right light touch at the end of the movie. Colin Firth has only a couple of scenes where he twirls his mustache and tries to look like Walt Disney himself.  The most amazing element in the supporting cast however is Dick Van Dyke, playing the older version of a different character from the first film. He has one scene and the ninety three year old, dances and sings like it was still 1964. He has a thousand watt smile that is the perfect cherry on the top of this dessert.

If you are a cynic, a hipster, or someone who thinks films need to promote a social justice agenda, there is not really anything here for you. However, if you are a child at heart, or the parent of children, or you want to feel like a child again, then this is right where you want to be. This is a holiday entertainment that will please families and leave you with a song in your heart, although the lyrics might not be there as well.

Mama Mia! Here We Go Again

Maybe it’s because I am a child of the Seventies, or that I have always loved movies with singing, or just that it is Summer-time, but I thoroughly enjoyed “Mama Mia !”, and now I will repeat that experience with the totally unnecessary but still fun sequel. “Mama Mia! Here We Go Again” has no depth, it is frequently campy beyond description and there are some songs that just don’t do much for you. So What? It is also visually inventive and gorgeous to look at, it has a two to one ratio of good ABBA songs to mediocre ABBA songs, and it is full of pretty people who all look like they are having a blast making fools of themselves.

The  marketing department that choose to release this in the middle of the summer, probably will re responsible for half the take at the box office. This is a movie that works because it is so light and insubstantial that your head will not hurt from trying to think about plot lines or what dialogue you should be paying attention to. Like a revue show on the Vegas stage, or an RKO or MGM musical from the golden age, this film story makes little sense and doesn’t matter. What you really want is to hear the songs and see the choreography. There are a few repeats from the first film of musical selections but the staging is all new and there were plenty of ABBA songs to fill out a second film, although some of them are justifiably obscure.

Once again the setting is primarily in the seas off of Croatia, and the landscape is spectacular. Anyone who has every taken a vacation somewhere and asked themselves when they were leaving the location, “How could I live here, what can I do to make that happen?, knows how the beauty of a place can transfix you. On film, you can also control the lighting and angles to make it even more attractive, and so this production does. Now to insure that people will really like what they are seeing, you fill the movie with lovely young women, who have romantic crushes and flings with handsome young men. When you race forward to present day, the young women and men are now old but they are vibrant and handsome in their advanced states.  Lily James and Amanda Seyfried are glowing, longhaired blonde pixie dream girls. They may lack the requisite mania to make the characters the stock issue in other films, but their smiles and enthusiastic singing are the stuff of summer romances. The young men who are cast as the youthful counterparts to Pierce Brosnon, Stellan Starsgard and Colin Firth, are effectively familiar and they carry most of the load when it comes to singing, so we only get snatches from their less tuneful older versions.

Director Ol Parker makes the film flow smoothly with inventive staging that frequently suggests his theatrical roots. As we bounce back and forth from 1979 to today, there are transitions using back to back walls, images appearing in mirrors and actions that begin with one set of characters but finish with the other set. Maybe they are not completely new inventions but they work well at moving things along and keeping the energy of the story from lagging too much. Anthony Van Laast put the dance sequences together in a vigorous manner that may lack the grace of a Busby Berkley extravaganza, but is compensated for by the diverse chorus of dancers who are not all 20 something models. Even the geezers in the cast look like they can dance a little, and if not, they look like they are having fun trying.

Meryl Streep who crooned her way through the starring role in the original film, appears in only one number near the end and then in the end credits. Lily James does the heavy lifting as the young version of the slightly promiscuous Donna. It is a bit of a leap when Meryl does come in because her Donna is definitely a different version of the character she and Lily are playing. Andy Garcia has become a go to older romantic lead, following his earlier turn this year in “Book Club“, another film to appeal to the geriatric set. Finally, Cher shows up and makes a movie star sort of impression with a minimal amount of screen time. She has one song that she chers [shares, ha ha] with Garcia and then sings in the ensemble closing credits.

If you were seeing this as a revue on stage, you would clap along and sing the chorus and when the finale shows up you’d stand up and boogie in place. The demographics on this film will definitely skew over thirty and female. At an 11am screening on a Friday, the theater was packed…with walkers, wheel chairs and canes. Forget your age, and your dignity. Don’t pay any attention to the usual standards that you might apply to a movie. This is a little like the song lyric from the 1990s, “Disco lemonade”. Have a cool drink on a warm summer day and dream of “sex and candy”.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Upfront I want anyone reading this to know that I am a big fan of “Kingsman:The Secret Service“. I am a sucker for British Spies and that maniacal dip into comic laced espionage was one of my favorite films of 2015. The cast was great and the over the top violence made the film feel very cartoonish in a good way. As a consequence, “The Golden Circle” enters this year’s movie experiences as one of my most anticipated films. I looked forward to further adventures and there was a promise of a returned Colin Firth, which made me want to know how they were going to pull that off. The advance information also tipped us to the fact that we would connect with the American counterpart of the private intelligence agency, so this stoked my interest even more. The director, Matthew Vaughn, has made several films that I really enjoy, including my favorite film of 2010, so I had great confidence in his ability to pull this movie together. Such confidence has been rewarded my friends. “The Golden Circle” is what you hope it will be for the most part.

One of the things that I find attractive about the series is that it is not afraid to be a little politically incorrect. James Bond might be a sexist pig, but his attitude is always tempered by a PG-13 rating. Kingsman goes all out in using sexual exploitation for humorous purposes and that might make the series unappetizing to film goes who want their movies to be socially just. In “The Secret Service” there is a punchline based on a promise of a forbidden sex act. It’s just the thing a 12 year old mentality would laugh at and the film is upfront about that. That joke was one of the widely criticized moments of the first film. Writer/Director Vaughn has taken that joke and turned it into a plot point for this film. I really appreciated that the Princess Tilde returns to this franchise in a greatly expanded role and with a lot more dignity. That however allows the original tasteless joke to be a background to two sexually inappropriate moments of humor in this film, one of them involving Elton John. The other moment will be the focus of criticism by haters for this film. It involves a GPS device and the mucus membrane, and it certainly is a sequence that will make delicate sensibilities squirm. That plot point aside, most of the rest of the film is standard comic violence with over the top moments of gruesomeness.

There is a second aspect of this film that I really appreciate as well. The plots of both of these movies turn trendy social issues on their heads and use them as the motivation for the villain’s plot. Global Warming was the theme of the first film, Drug Legalization is the driving force for this movie. The aptly named Poppy, played by Julianne Moore, is motivated to make her product socially acceptable through the use of international hostage taking. It is a creative plan that to a large degree mimics the plot of the first film but still manages to allow some twists in the story. There is a great shot against the U.N. that puts the U.S. President in the story. Unlike the feckless Obama impersonator in the first film, this character gets lines and is played by a recognizable actor, Bruce Greenwood. His approach to the plot is as deranged as Poppy’s so the two intelligence agencies here are caught between a rock and a hard place.  The only thing missing from this is a satisfying comeuppance for the players, in the manner of the delightful head exploding climax of the first film.

 

Restoring Harry Hart to the storyline of the Kingsman is tricky. Being shot in the face is a pretty definitive exit for a character. I appreciated that the solution here was not a quick fix and it ends up being a secondary plotline in the story. There is a pivotal point with a dog and that also insures additional pleasure for most viewers.  Colin Firth adds so much class to the project and in future episodes (should they be made) his character will lend gravitas to the proceedings. We do lose a couple of characters that really could have made future stories great as well, but in the long run the films have to circle around Taron Egerton’s Eggsy and Firth’s Harry Hart.

The Statesmen organization has several good characters to add to the film. Jeff Bridges is a welcome addition to any film and Halle Berry is a fun match for the American version of Mark Strong’s character of Merlin. At the moment, these are background players, the really active American counterparts are played by Pedro Pascal and Channing Tatum. The major drawback that I have with the film is the under utilization of Tatum’s character “Tequila”.  After a solid introduction, he is sidelined for the remainder of the picture. Pascal’s “Whiskey” has to carry the American load and does so effectively for most of the picture. There are some twists that feel a bit forced but they do make for a rousing conclusion to the movie.

While there is nothing as excessive as the church scene from the first film here, there are some great action scenes that use the mix of slow motion and accelerated filming that the church sequence used. This style appears to be Vaughn’s signature touch and although it might be a bit cliched if over used, I thought it was reasonably judicious here. A cab chase at the start of the film and the final attack on the secret lair both take advantage of that style and it works well in those scenes. Much of the rest of the film is presented more traditionally, including initiation rituals for the bad guys and Elton John’s scenes. Oh yeah, did I mention that Elton is in the movie? He is pretty funny sending himself up in feathered costumes and parodying his own drug troubles. Julianne Moore gets to abuse him a little but he verbally gives it right back in great comic form.

This movie can’t quite reach the satisfaction level of the original, few sequels manage to do so. “The Golden Circle” however does entertain and it meets our need to have the action a little bit bigger and the comedy a little bit broader. It is jammed with characters that complicate the story but also provide a lot of jokes. They have managed to bring back a character from the dead in a credible way for an improbable, over the top, spy adventure. I don’t know that it will win over many converts. If you disliked the first film you will certainly not care for this movie. If however, you are like me and took fiendish pleasure in the undermining of political correctness and the shear joy of silly violence just for the comedic effect, than the Kingsman Golden Circle is tailored perfectly for you.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

This is one of those meta experiences that so often crop up in films these days. It is a film about spies that references James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, yet it engages in the same over the top story telling and effects that it is simultaneously lampooning. Having done the same thing to Fairy Tales with “Stardust” and Comic Books with “Kick Ass”, director Matthew Vaughn now turns to a new genre with this hyper violent exercise in adrenaline based movies. Oh, and just so you know, he pulls it off brilliantly.

The opening credits will make you giggle with the use of exploding pieces of an ancient fort, blowing onto the screen to form the credit titles. All of this is scored with Dire Straights “Money for Nothing”, yeah that’s the way you do it. Colin Firth is is Harry Hart, codename Galahad, an agent of the privately organized intelligence and espionage agency that borrows from every cartoon spy film of the sixties and makes the idea of a gentleman spy come to life. Firth was once imagined as a James Bond replacement, and the fact that his boss “Arthur” is played by Michael Caine, the working class Bond of the Harry Palmer films, makes the whole thing even more delicious.

Newcomer Taron Egerton plays the hard knock, working class son of an earlier protege of Galahad, rough around the edges but ready to be polished. Early parts of the movie and recurring sequences focus on the recruitment and testing process of likely “Kingsman” material. As the job interview begins, a threat to the world by well meaning but crazy billionaire tech guru Valentine, sends the regular agents out in the field to investigate. Samuel Jackson plays a George Soros/Al Gore hybrid with a distinct lisp and an aversion to seeing the violence that he himself wants. As Hart crosses swords with Valentine, they engage in a parody of cliches from most spy movies of this variety. In their interactions they even discuss the Bond films that feature megalomaniac rich guys who play villain to the English spy, and they both play with those roles effectively.

If your liberal sensibilities are easily offended, you may want to stay away from this. Jackson’s character is a rich genius with an evil plan to save the world from global warming. He attempts to recruit influential leaders and celebrities from around the world to be part of his new world order. Visualize the Socialist/Green/Celebrity Environmentalists as the dupes that will populate the Earth like Drax’s genetic specimens in “Moonraker” or Stromberg’s mermen in “The Spy Who Loved Me”. This is the biggest drubbing of liberal sacred cows since “Team America”. The Kingsman might seem reactionary to some, invoking as they do the names of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. They even use a piece of equipment supposedly part of the loathed Strategic Defense Initiative [referred to as the Star Wars satellite system] to fight back against the plans of the villain.

Since Star Wars does get mentioned here, it is fun to note that a nearly unrecognizable Mark Hamill appears as a kidnapped scientist. Mark Strong, who has been in most of Vaughn’s previous films, plays “Merlin” the aide de camp to the Kingsman.  There also seems to be a CGI version of an American Leader with prominent ears, who plays along with the scheme. At this point some audience members heads will explode, but hold on because that will not be the end of the fireworks. This movie also parodies the Westboro Baptist church crazies, the aristocrats of Great Britain, and dog lovers everywhere. Some of the humor is broad, such as the meal served by the suspected billionaire to the agent posing as another billionaire. It is either biting satire or great product placement.

The young leads get to take over the action at the end and they are just as effective as Firth was in his moments of glory ( or maybe I should say gory). This movie takes “Kick Ass” violence to new levels with some sick jokes mixed in. Imagine the damage a flying marital artist with razor sharp blades for feet can do, and then expect to see it on the screen. The slow mo, fast action styles explored in other films of this ilk are used here to good effect, but if you are over that approach, there are plenty of other bits of violence to delight you.

In all honesty, this is a movie that was genetically designed to tickle my funny bone and stimulate my adrenal glands. If “Kick Ass” and “James Bond” had a love child, this would be it. The film never takes itself too seriously but sometimes it plays with that idea as well. There is classic rock on the soundtrack, Colin Firth, Samuel Jackson and Michael Caine on the screen, and there is enough violence for ten movies. I was in love with this film when it was being hatched in the minds of the comic book artist who created the concept and the person who is responsible for putting Matthew Vaughn in charge. To quote Harry Hart: “Manners maketh man. Do you know what that means? Then let me teach you a lesson”. I consider myself well schooled after seeing this.