Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Disney’s new movie musical is a gorgeous sequel to its cherished film Mary Poppins. If you are one of those that loves that 1964 movie, you’re likely to love this movie, too. Neither as sugary as the original nor as bleak, it is, under Rob Marshall’s direction, more purposeful.

Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Sicario, The Girl on the Train, Into the Woods) in the title role, is often inviting and entertaining. If you can stand another Christmastime depiction of a sinister capitalist (Colin Firth, The King’s Speech) ala A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, you will enjoy this song and dance film.

Music by Hairspray songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman shapes the movie. With Rob Marshall’s frequent cinematographer Dion Beebe (The Snowman, Into the Woods, Disney’s upcoming live action version of The Little Mermaid), the new Mary Poppins picture pops in every frame.

Like Robert Zemeckis, Rob Marshall (Into the Woods, Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago) excels at making marvelously, visually arresting motion pictures. In particular, Marshall is able to set the musical to a proper and compelling plot progression. Thus, Marshall makes something of a thin tale (which he co-wrote with others), blending the cast of characters with charming tunes.

Be mindful of what you think of Mary Poppins, however. I don’t consider it one of Walt Disney’s best pictures. Others, such as Bambi, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book, not to mention the forgotten So Dear to My Heart, are better. The sad, sappy qualities don’t age well.

If it wasn’t for Ben Whishaw (Paddington’s voice in Paddington 2 and Sonny in Suffragette) as Michael Banks and Blunt staying in step with the London nanny originated by Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins Returns would feel flat and lack vitality.

As it is, besides its grating anti-capitalism (the Banks sister played by Emily Mortimer is a labor activist), Mary Poppins Returns drags. Add another distracting appearance by overrated Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Mamma Mia!, Florence Foster Jenkins, Hope Springs, Into the Woods), who insists on singing in every other movie, and the film is practically puffy in every way. A lamplighter character played by Moana and Hamilton! composer Lin-Manuel Miranda could have easily been cut or reduced.

But Miranda’s laborer is part of the movie’s best dancing sequence. The lamplighters lead Poppins and the Banks children back from the horrid bank that’s repossessing their home. The street workers’ singing and dancing serves to align and seal the movie’s disparate themes, displayed with Impressionism, vibrant early 60s colors and animation and transitions.

Mary Poppins Returns is as traditional as the 54-year-old original and both are based on the P.L. Travers stories, so faith, poverty and altruism are treated as inherently virtuous. And Poppins’ line that thinking too much is bad for you fits this condescending narrative, so expect the joyful and childlike to be rooted in the 20th century’s lowest, most common slogans.

But there’s good casting of the three Banks children, wisdom in childlike wonder (with cameos by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury) and the best line — when Mary Poppins deadpans after someone asks if she’s sure a bike trip with the kids is quite safe: “not in the slightest” — make Mary Poppins Returns a welcome diversion for child and adult alike.

Movie Review: Benji (Netflix, 2018)

If you enjoyed Joe Camp’s adventurous Benji (1974) featuring Peter Breck as a single dad and an adorable stray mutt that loves kids, fights crime and saves lives, Netflix’s remake is probably worth watching this week. Benji, co-written and directed by Brandon Camp (Love Happens), debuts this Friday, March 16 on the streaming service.

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With a caveat, I enjoyed the new Benji. Director Camp, son of Benji‘s original creator, seamlessly captures the simple magic and joy of watching a scrappy little street dog try to get a home and a boy to adopt and love him. I think Benji’s fundamentally enduring appeal, and, as a movie series, it’s had several successful sequels, lies in its depiction of a dog that can think and act with a sense of purpose. Audiences like seeing these qualities on screen and dog owners and lovers know that dogs are often as amazing as portrayed.

The low-budget, independent charm of the 1974 picture carries into this version, too, with a few changes to the basic story but the same unaffected, family-friendly sensibility toward decent, hardworking people and the persistent dog that comes into their streets, shops, homes and lives. This means Benji bonds with a boy (Gabriel Bateman) and, later, his sister (Darby Camp, no relation) whose emergency medical worker single mother (Kiele Sanchez) nixes the idea of getting a dog on practical grounds.

The dog is the star of this show and Brandon Camp gets him from every angle, scampering about, climbing, pouting, bounding and jogging through the seasons and breaking into a full sprint to save the kids when they’re endangered. His expressive eyes work wonders on humans and his little black nose picks up clues, too. A terrific plot point comes with humor in enlistment of another dog when Benji’s luck runs out and local police stumble on the job. Add a pawn shop angle, a pair of nasty thieves, a prayer, a boatyard, found cell phone video, being named after Benjamin Franklin and being kicked out in the rain and Benji delivers.

He’s the cutest dog in pictures since the lifesaving dog in The Artist and a worthwhile successor to the original Higgins as Benji, if not quite as stray-looking as that unkempt mutt. What feats the new Benji (real name: Benji) accomplishes, leaping and balancing about, are as plausible or as implausible as other dog tricks in the series or films starring Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. I could watch him in almost any movie, though I also enjoyed the last movie in the series, Benji Off the Leash, so I’m admittedly a fan.

A heavy-handed plot twist puts a damper on the light, wholesome, 87-minute Benji. If you love dogs and watch, and you should watch if you subscribe to Netflix, you’ll know the faith-based twist when you see it in an instant. It’s not necessary, it goes on too long, which is part of what makes it too thickly laid on, and it breaks character. But the scenes of a dog bonding with a boy and trying to save him from harm are compelling on their own terms, especially the expression on Benji’s face when he first sees the boy, and young Bateman as the boy is likable and easy to watch. Almost as much as Benji.

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The eighth Star Wars picture, The Last Jedi, underwhelms. This begins to become apparent with the lackluster three-paragraph opening crawl, a series staple. It thins and flattens out from there, though readers should note that I do not regard any of these films as great motion pictures.

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That said, I gave 2015’s entry, The Force Awakens, a positive review (as well as a tepid recommendation of last year’s Star Wars-themed Rogue One). Nearly everything about The Last Jedi is mediocre, formulaic and, frankly, as fresh and exciting as waiting in line at a government checkpoint for permission to travel.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper), characters return, picking up after the end of The Force Awakens. This means that Han Solo’s son, Ben (Adam Driver), spunky Rey (Daisy Ridley), dastardly Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), plucky Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and the usual creatures and droids are back (with new ones, too). Isaac and Driver fare best this time out.

Most of the cast have cardboard roles with dreadful lines. Luke delivers at least three lines referencing the island where he lives and they all stick out without support or exposition. This is not necessarily Hamill’s fault. But the screenwriting impairs what ought to be his command performance as Luke Skywalker.

Each cast member seems directed to act out each role with sameness, which is not to be confused with consistency. There’s no range here. For example, Rey’s composed and very 21st century in dialogue while gallivanting on Luke’s island one minute, but she’s an emotional New Age wreck the next. Whether Rey’s crying, hugging, holding hands, mind-melding or jabbing with her lightsaber, she’s too on her mark, pat and scripted. In action scenes, for instance, she’s always screaming, moaning and breathing heavily like it’s a command she’s executing rather than an experience she’s having.

It’s not just Rey. Even Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Agora), looking thinner and noticeably trying to breathe life into the role, stiffens. Boyega’s Finn fares worst, not merely because the already-underdeveloped character has the least to do that matters to the plot, other than as a prop for a new Asian tomboy character (Kelly Marie Tran). Only Driver owns his role, physically imposing himself extremely well, making sensitively dark, tormented Ben/Kylo Ren the most interesting part of The Last Jedi. The less said about the late Miss Fisher as Leia, the better.

Snappy comebacks are gone. So, largely, is any sense of fun. Even a segment of the picture set in a galactic Monte Carlo-like getaway lacks playfulness and stamina, existing strictly to serve The Last Jedi‘s theme that the “downtrodden” are inherently noble and the upscale are inherently not. It’s as though everything’s deployed to serve a specific plot or marketing function. The stilted quality pervades The Last Jedi. The sameness suctions both its sense of life and nostalgia. What are probably final scenes of iconic characters with other iconic characters amount to lost cinematic opportunities.

Add multiple plot points pushing a kamikaze-sacrifice morality, several scenes which seem to have been storyboarded solely to please PETA, as against adding, alleviating or advancing action and a bombastic score and The Last Jedi underperforms. Potentially interesting scenes, such as a spearfishing moment when two of the good guys appear to prepare for a bite to eat, are cut, lost or mangled. Remember when Yoda trained Luke on Dagobah? Scenes lingered and the extended sequence added depth, danger and mystery to both characters and enhanced The Empire Strikes Back. Here, such bonding moments are pushed away, sacrificed as quickly as characters’ lives. A ghostly space float scene stops all motion and takes the audience out of the movie.

Long and choppy, dragging for stretches without action, Star Wars: The Last Jedi too easily makes the audience want to affirm one character’s declaration that “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” Creator George Lucas has said he made nine stories in his space saga. This laborious eighth is a mediocrity.

Movie Review: Rogue One

The Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, induces fatigue. Though based on a major plot point in the original Star Wars film in 1977—and prominently featured in the marketing campaign—the studio asks for no spoilers and I promise this review is intended to inform and enhance, not distort and detract from, one’s cinematic experience.

That said, I wish I had known more about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in advance. Coming so soon after last winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a better movie which takes place after Return of the Jedi, Rogue One starts in a haze of sameness that the uninitiated or occasional series viewer may find disorienting and confusing.

It’s not merely that both pictures sport a British-accented brunette in the female lead. There is also a scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) on strike from developing the Death Star who’s a farmer with a wife and kid on the farm like Luke Skywalker’s uncle in the 1977 movie. Other scenes are strikingly derivative, too, to the point that Rogue One feels like a stew of Star Wars movies you’ve seen before. It’s always on the verge of tying into some previously known plot point.

Aligning everything Star Wars comes at a cost. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this while seeing the current crop of series films (1977-2015) in theaters, but, whenever something remotely familiar in the Star Wars universe (no matter how obscure) appears on screen, certain audience fanatics audibly react, taking me out of the movie and making me stop and think about what connection, if any, what I may have seen (or missed) has to the story and series. It’s mentally exhausting. There’s a lot of that here, and I’m not supposed to say what. A movie should stand alone and Rogue One does, in some respects, but audience response from series fans may get in the way.


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“Trust the Force” is Rogue One‘s meaning, which is neither more complicated nor more logical than that. Tracking Erso’s daughter (a bland character ably played by Felicity Jones), the tale of mild intrigue revolves around the rebellion’s efforts to halt construction of the evil Empire’s Death Star. As a girl, Erso’s daughter Jyn witnesses an act of heroism and it’s implied that she gets some sort of training (and there’s a kyber crystal) but, more than Rey in The Force Awakens, she inexplicably becomes an adult who’s suddenly imbued with technological, weapons and combat superiority and a curious blend of cynicism and idealism. Lacking sufficient development, Jyn’s journey runs rather flat.

This is not to say that all is dull. Indeed, parents best bear in mind that the Death Star as a means of mass death is fundamental and Walt Disney Pictures’ Lucasfilm doesn’t go soft in this regard. Rogue One reminds everyone that the series created by George Lucas is extremely dark and death-driven. The body count climbs pretty high.

With balmy beaches, jungles, rainy weather, Imperial walkers and destroyers, all kinds of new and familiar aliens, returning cast members, computer generated surprises and new characters, such as a blind monk who may have a same-sex partner (it’s a bit vague) and a drone dubbed K-2SO voiced by Alan Tudyk (42) that’s both less prissy and more jaded than C-3PO, Rogue One has a lot to look at and listen to. Among the new ride-alongs with hard-charging Jyn are a cagey rebel named Cassian played by Diego Luna (the most developed, consistent and interesting character). A pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) seems half-stoned for most of the movie. But even an urban scene evoking Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner channels the series’ proclivity for hooded, cloaked and caped creatures.

All the rebels are divided over an “extremist” (Forest Whitaker, Arrival, Phenomenon, Black Nativity) who proves crucial to the cause, though he’s not in Rogue One for long. Writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) do their best and cram heaps of plot, character and action, especially in the battle-heavy third act, to dramatize the rebellion converging to win the star wars.

“The Force wills it,” someone says in a climactic battle, and Rogue One may be the most explicitly religious of the Star Wars movies, turning the Force into a catchy new chant. An infidel converts to mysticism. So Rogue One is more about having faith than it is about going rogue. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla remake) downplays compelling and ethically and politically-charged points—questioning unchecked government surveillance of communications, what constitutes peace and security and why self-sacrifice is the series’ highest virtue—in favor of the generic idea that buying time for the good to prevail requires faith, sacrifice and mass death, with hope and dry humor sweetening what’s at root a dark and bitter deal.

Movie Review: Spotlight

Movie Review: Spotlight


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Church, state and the press form the core of a simple tale set in Boston in what begins in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976. The economically written Spotlight does not fully account for, let alone take on, the corrupt Catholic Church on the topic of its systematic conspiracy to sanction priests molesting children, especially boys.

Instead, unlike the universally themed Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), it narrowly focuses upon the role of those who ought to speak out; in this case, the media. Those looking for reckoning, catharsis and moral judgment, which that earlier picture supplies in abundance, rightly condemning an entire country, may be disappointed. In Spotlight, the goal is merely to examine what it means to throw the switch, so to speak, and activate one’s mind to exercise absolute free speech, the basic principle upon which the freedom of the press rests.

Depicting this fundamental choice to think and act by speaking or writing begins with the arrival of an outsider, an unwed Jew named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber in an outstanding supporting performance) who takes over the stodgy, incestuous newspaper as a top editor, takes stock of the characters and methods of its staff and declares: “We can do better.”

Can they ever. Not only are the Boston Police in on the Catholic child sex conspiracy—and anyone that groans about conspiracy theories should watch this movie—really, the whole city of Boston including its entrenched Baby Boomer journalists are complicit, too.

Telescoping mass Christian acts of injustice into an investigation in the summer of 2001, Spotlight, taken from the name of one of those obscure newspaper sections that few people read, isolates each member of the enterprise team. The movie tracks them, one by one, as they reluctantly or enthusiastically follow leads into the facts of accusations against many of the city’s Catholic priests charged with sexually assaulting boys (and, to a lesser degree, girls).

Among the most eager is a reporter (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) who tells another journalist when asked that he is “just curious” about a certain fact. Rather than the question being welcomed at this leftist bastion of this leftist city, he is told to “go be curious somewhere else”. Indeed, Spotlight dramatizes that leftist media are antagonistic to the question “Why?” when it applies to their dogma and sacred cows (i.e., the vastly leftist U.S. Catholic Church) and, more to the point, when answering does not have an obvious connection to taking down someone or something prejudged by leftist intellectuals as privileged.

Spotlight doesn’t frame these observations, but scorn and contempt for inquiry and investigation of the Church is evident everywhere in the newsroom, which functions as an extension of the backrooms, hidden booths and secret chambers of the Catholic Church. To this journalist, the basic ethos in this vaunted newspaper (a publication, it must be noted, owned at the time by the New York Times Company) stinks and made me nauseous. Honorable and decent people should be so forewarned. Especially if you are or know someone who was assaulted.

Deep mistrust for media is displayed in a character portrayed by Stanley Tucci (Captain America: The First Avenger, Burlesque, The Hunger Games) who is an attorney, which makes the point stronger. He seems to sense through decades of silence and complicity that the press cannot be counted on to ask, answer and report the truth of this widespread war on boys. In a series of meetings with Ruffalo’s dogged crusader, arcing through the whole movie, he never puts his clients at the full mercy of those he sees as the silent party to the crime.

Another journalist on the team, portrayed by Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris, A Most Wanted Man, Aloha), is similarly undaunted by the backlash that ripples across Boston in proportion to the rise of the questions among the investigative staff. Dramatizing that progress is made first by the individual, in decisive steps, the team fans out across the city to canvass and gather facts, compile data, gain records and interview victims and others implicated in what clearly becomes apparent is a big city government-church conspiracy. Spotlight is foremost a procedural plot of bureaucracy, conspiracy and the individual willing to, in heroic editor Baron’s words, “stand alone.”

In fact, given police and judicial complicity, the whole city is a functional half-theocracy, as parishioners, bureaucrats and citizens all but take and follow tacit orders from all the way up to the Vatican. But Spotlight shows how today’s media guards, rather than doubts, the status quo. It’s involving, despite knowing the outcome in advance.

This episodic movie offers an example of an entire population turning the other cheek.

Spotlight leads to the September 2001 attack by religious fundamentalists to mark the film’s tension-packed climax, as the basic conflict between those who silently and, in some cases, explicitly sanction the notion that ignorance is bliss—”People need the church” as a crutch, one admonishes—and those who seek to enlighten come into plain view on opposing sides.

Spotlight shines upon power lust, cronyism, and the insular subculture of those three powerful hierarchies—media, church and state—though, unlike Judgment at Nuremberg, it stops far short of exploring the reasons why some are driven to act against all human decency to deliver innocents into mass abuse and lifelong despair. But one gets the gist, if not the gruesome details and aftermath. For example, one of the cronies confronts the editor leading the team of freethinkers, thoughtfully portrayed by Michael Keaton (Birdman), with a forecast, or veiled threat, of impending professional doom, asking Keaton’s character: “Where are you gonna go?” which in that context means where are you gonna hide if you print the truth?

This is the essence of the evil from which the good man must choose to break away. When you’ve been party to acts of evil then, in the instant that you become aware of the guilt you’ve earned, when you start to think about making amends and seeking forgiveness, the perpetrator lines up to remind you that you’re part of the problem. Do you give in or break off and, in Spike Lee’s words, do the right thing?

With a terrific supporting cast and sterling turns by Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and Tucci and, in particular, Schreiber as the fountainhead of pursuing truth, Spotlight illuminates what informs, and only what informs, the guilty’s choice to name, face and defeat evil. In the most rewarding scene, with a poignant theme of setting things right when you’ve let things go wrong, two men meet on Sunday as the holiest day of all—not to pray, but to produce, with reverence for the truth, not falsehood, as sacred.