Not long ago, the 1927 Theatre Company recorded and aired their brilliant new take on the Golem tale. It is an astounding piece of stage craft that incorporates live talent and animation with a bit of music and movement thrown in. The story, in this conception, is about the control of media and commerce over humanity. The troop tell the story in a closed loop, spinning around the story of Robert, played engagingly, and with spare irony, by Philippa Hambly.
Along with four other on-stage performers (Dunne Genevieve, Nathan Gregory, Rowena Lennon, and Felicity Sparks), the troop begin a story that you think you know, but which turns on you even as it makes your eyes and brain dance. The duality of what is happening on stage and how they are keeping you entranced is no accident. It is mesmerizing and pointed.
I have no idea if this will ever stream again or if it will be available on disc, but make time for it if you get the opportunity. Honestly, there are few stage productions that can really blow me away. This one had my jaw dropping constantly at the illusion, the humor, and the message. It’s not perfect, but it is darned close, and it is worth every minute you get to spend with it…and sadly that is ephemeral.
Certainly you can approach this purely as a documentary about Ushio Shinohara and/or Noriko Shinohara, but that is just the surface of this odd window into the lives of the couple.
Zachary Heinzerling’s first film captured, as well as forced, a story to creation simply by being present in lives of these two people. We learn of their art and their impetus, but we also watch them change and say things that have clearly long been gestating…and you get the strong sense that they never would have been said without the cameras being present. That aspect brings an odd and wonderful layer to this documentary. It creates as well as captures art, simply by existing.
While this may all sound rather breezy, the story that unfolds is actually rather complex and, at times, dark. But it is also full of powerful attachment and love. Love we come to understand and, ultimately, see played out during the final role of the credits in a very direct way.
The result of Heinzerling’s efforts was the well deserved receipt of multiple awards, including an Oscar nomination. How you view the final product, as art, story, performance, or simply couple’s therapy is part of the charm and fascination of the piece.
If you are a Netflix subscriber, you probably have already seen this movie, which has smashed all kinds of expectations for this kind of release. If it had the same attendance in theaters, it would have been a certified hit. As it is, no one knows quite how to judge the results, but they were impressive nonetheless with 45 million account accesses within the first couple days and moving up from there. But is it worth it?
Horror has seen a Renaissance over the last year or so. Get Out, It, and A Quiet Place, even Suspiria, Halloween, and Hereditary have each staked out different corners of the genre successfully, if not always financially. Bird Box lives happily in the Quiet Place corner of that realm, focused on family survival during an unknown and little understood threat. Its story is somewhat predictable, but as it is told in flashback, and there is a lot you can assume from the start, it is intended that the journey and the coda at the end are what you’re sticking around for. And, of course, the cast.
Who would have seen Sandra Bullock (Ocean’s 8) taking on a lead in a horror movie, let alone a streaming only horror? She brings considerable talent and range to an otherwise standard role. Trevante Rhodes (Predator) provides her a nice foil, though not necessarily much of a performance on his own. But he is part of very unexpected cast list. With additional roles by Sarah Paulson (Carol), John Malkovich (Mile 22), Jacki Weaver (Widows), BD Wong (Jurassic World), Lil Rel Howery (Get Out), and Tom Hollander (Bohemian Rhapsody), you’d be understandably surprised. It certainly signals a strong turning in the streaming game.
Director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) brought all of her suspense know-how to bear on this story. Even when the adaptation by Eric Heisserer (Extinction, Arrival) isn’t quite to his previous crafting, she helps pull it together with the actors and directorial choices. Ultimately, this is a story about people, not about events, which is what, I’m sure, attracted the cast and Bier to the production.
Depending on your love of the genre, you will like this to differing degrees. As a pure horror, it is only OK. As an examination of the human condition amid calamity it fares better. Purely as a movie, it is entertaining and gripping, but not brilliant. But if you like Bullock, or any of the other cast, it is worth some time and popcorn. For me, the ending was more than a little obvious and forced, but since this really is about the journey, as I’ve said, I’m giving it a break. On the other hand, you might find the journey itself questionable, depending on your interpretation (one interpretation is quite cliche, while another is a bit more broadly acceptable). Most folks will be able to go along for the ride and enjoy it without the over-intellectualizing I found myself unable to escape. Give it a few minutes to see if it hooks you…I’m betting it will for most.
As a side note, this is quite the double punch for Netflix, whose technology setting Black Mirror: Bandersnatch also released this past week.
For anyone who thought Netflix was just an aggregator or simple studio, think again. They just created a whole new set of goal posts for the competition and for mass entertainment.
OK, I’ll admit, my rating is high here, in part, because of the technology and novelty of the piece, but Avatar got that kind of reaction as well, and let’s face it, that script and story were appallingly bad. But Bandersnatch has a good script, is very clever and fun…and I can’t wait to watch it again. My first time through, even with multiple loop-backs, I hit a 90min version, which is likely close to the happy path, even though that wasn’t my intention.
Fionn Whitehead (queers.) drives the movie with a bit more excess energy than is probably needed, but it is certainly consistent. As his father, BBC serial standard Craig Parkinson (Line of Duty) gets to ride a roller-coaster of a part, much depending on your selections moment to moment. Similarly, Alice Lowe (Sherlock) gets to have some fun as Whitehead’s therapist. But those two stabilizing beams in the story aside, a real special mention has to go to Will Poulter (The Little Stranger), who completely transformed himself for his role; he wears the accent and British intellectual toff rather well.
Of course this twisted piece of mental suspense came from the mind of the Charlie Brooker, creator and writer of the Black Mirror series. Brooker always puts technology at the center of his stories, though what makes them work is how the characters respond to that tech. Making tech part of the experience now is just a natural evolution of his approach. Director David Slade (Hannibal, American Gods) took Brooker’s vision, and its many branches, to create a series of paths and endings that all feel right for the story at hand and Black Mirror generally. I found three endings on my first watch, looping back each time to try something else. Each was satisfying, though there is clearly an intended ending that is very much in Brooker’s vein.
You can’t even think about Bandersnatch without thinking about how it was made and delivered. And, of course, the technology is bloody amazing. Sure it watches sort of like a high-end video game. But it plays like a movie and the transitions are visually seamless. Angel Devoid tried to do this years ago, but hardware quirks and other weaknesses left it working only marginally well. Bandersnatch is the payout on the promise of branching movies, and manages to do it at scale. That achievement is pretty astounding when you think of the number of concurrent watchers, each making their own choices, and no one seeing a break in the action. There are some drawbacks to how it all works. For instance, you have to watch it on a supported device and you are forced to break the wall between you and screen by being involved. However, neither overwhelms the piece and the latter works into your watching experience interesting ways given the plot.
But, tech aside, it is an engaging and interesting story. The mystery is thick and the stakes are high from near the very beginning. There are some obvious aspects to it all, especially if you’re a Black Mirror fan, but not so many or much that it ruins the fun. The story is highly rewatchable as well. I know there are huge chunks of info I’ve yet to unearth and I absolutely intend to go back and find them all. Once you see the movie, you’ll understand the delicious irony in that as well. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this kind of entertainment, but an occasional, well-done piece would always be welcome.
Make time for Bandersnatch…it is history in the making, no matter how the eventual reception of it goes.
Under Michael Bay, the Transformers series of films had gotten bigger, louder, and thinner on story with each successive installment. By the release of The Last Knight, they were unwatchable. This reboot manages to rescue the franchise from oblivion, if they’re willing to take the lesson that character and story matter.
Hailee Steinfeld has the enviable position with this film to be driving two franchises this season, with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also still strong at the box office. She clearly knows how to embody strength without losing track of humanity. Her semi-suburban-punk gearhead is nicely credible and engaging. With Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Love, Simon) in her orbit, but never overshadowing her, the two work together to save the world, as you do in this style of film.
And that is one of the cleverest aspects of the film, the style. Travis Knight’s (Kubo and the Two Strings) direction of Christina Hodson’s (Unforgettable) script is spot on. The two managed to set up and consciously deliver an 80s style family science fiction tale that still retains the big action of the Transformers but has all the silly heart and logic of 80s films, with some minor updates for the times. Think a less dark, bigger effects Stranger Things in style. It isn’t a perfect film, but it delivers on what it sets out to do with great pacing and fun sequences.
John Cena (Ferdinand), Pamela Adlon, and Stephen Schneider complete the main cast with some adult support to the story, each with some surprising moments. And Jason Ian Drucker, as the kid brother, completes the tableau.
If you’re a hardcore Transformers fan, you’ll probably find a lot to argue with in this story, and a lot to enjoy. It certainly explored aspects of the story, like Bumblebee’s voice, that I’d not seen before. I can say that as an adventure film for the holidays, it was great fun, full of humor, and solidly delivered. It certainly set itself up for a franchise as well, which, if they learned their lessons, could be good news. For now, at least, this was a worthwhile and fun romp on a lot of levels and for a wide range of ages. In other words, perfect for the holidays.
I won’t bore you with the mountain of specific issues with the script. This could have been DC’s breakthrough, and it is close, but they still just don’t get how to make it about characters and not effects. Of course, that was never director James Wan’s (Furious 7) forte to begin with. In this case his script writers didn’t do him much service either; there was so much potential, but they went for too large a scope and lost the thread.
I will say that idea of weaving the origin story into flashbacks to make this into a single film was clever. But that created a problem for the story in that it doesn’t explain things until too late. You keep seeing behaviors and science and abilities that are wrong or foolish, and by the time they try to explain it, you’ve already dismissed it as a problem rather than going for the ride. This happens over and over again. Much like things blowing up to separate people (which becomes something of an unintended joke after a while).
Jason Momoa (Justice League) does show he can mostly carry a movie. Amber Heard (The Danish Girl) makes a credible play at being a super hero princess herself, though with oddly confused motivations. Surprisingly, Dolph Lundgren (Creed II) actually comes across as one of the more layered characters as Heard’s father. But Patrick Wilson (The Commuter) is so teeth-grindingly cliche it’s frustrating. Likewise for Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s (Boundaries) Manta. Even Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) doesn’t get to stretch his rather broad-based abilities thanks to the script and directing. Frankly, that’s just criminal.
Honestly, the only relationship and moments that work are Nicole Kidman’s (Boy Erased) and Temuera Morrison’s (Moana) framing scenes. They’re predictable as hell, but they work and provide the only emotionally satisfying payoff in the entire movie.
So, if you’re going to see this, and you likely will, see it on the biggest bloody screen you can find. Enjoy the pretty pictures and the occasional humor. Squint through the dialogue and plot and just accept it. Munch your popcorn and have fun. This isn’t the ascendance of DC quite yet, Wonder Woman still tops their attempts, but they’re getting closer to understanding what makes a great comic book movie.
If you haven’t sussed it from the title, this movie is in the third category. Sadly, the result here isn’t great, but it isn’t entirely without merit. As an early or first film for almost all involved, it is interesting to see who may grow from it. And the story certainly takes the idea head-on by making the center of the story a parody band of The Black Owls to add some layers to the movie. Fortunately, they’re also a reasonably talented group of musicians.
While the movie style is stilted, it is also full of clever and intelligent ideas and comments. That can’t carry the film, but it does help make it engaging. By having a parody band at the center of it all helps to set it apart from other movies in the genre, like Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind. It accepts it is a parody from the beginning rather than having the band in earnest. One of the more unexpected thoughts in the script is why Liberty Mean, the parody band that drives everything, is a parody band: they consider it a tribute to The Black Owls.
But that brings up part of the challenge with this movie: you have to know The Black Owls and Foghat music to really appreciate the efforts here. If you don’t know their canon cold, it’s like trying to listen to Weird Al without context. It is also worth noting that both Foghat and The Black Owls have a real presence in the film, which is a huge bonus to its profile.
But, other than the editing, director and co-writer (with Mark Stewart) Ben Bacharach-White doesn’t do his actors many favors in this romp. Through interesting cuts and visual games, he keeps the pace surprisingly brisk given some of the issues that remain in the movie.
At the top of those issues: no one comes across as real or comfortable. There are some glimmers of potential beyond their musical efforts. Aditi Molly Bhanja stands out as the high point of the cast, providing just enough real moments to keep it all percolating along. Andrew Yackel isn’t far behind, though his timing needs some work on what are, admittedly, some truly challenging verbal riffs. But it isn’t like any of it feels real enough to carry the plot: Liberty Mean trying to raise money to get to SXSW to bring their brand of tribute to the masses.
Basically, this is a low-budget romp through and through, but with some real effort at making it whole, and with some good music to carry it. If you know the bands in play, you’ll get a lot more out of it. And, honestly, the better read you are generally, the more you’ll pick up in the dialogue. But this strikes me as a flick that works best with, shall we say, mood enhancers and, possibly, if you were/are in a garage band or on the younger side.
Like its title character, the original Mary Poppins (1964) is practically perfect in every way. It is full of childlike wonder, entertaining humor, amazing pacing, fabulous music, and a sweet and affirming resolution. It is also one of my favorites of its type. So it was with both anticipation and not a little trepidation I walked into this sequel.
Ben Whishaw (queers.) and Emily Mortimer (Spectral) do justice to the Banks family. Getting to see Whishaw in a young father role was great and a nice evolution for him on screen. And Mortimer mirrored Mrs. Banks’s character from the original admirably. Adding to the threads from the past, bringing forward Ellen the maid in Julie Waters (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) was also a nice gift. The new generation of children were also well cast. Pixie Davies (Humans), Nathanael Saleh (Game of Thrones), and Joel Dawson are a great trio with talent and the ability to work well together.
I’ll get to Poppins, for she is the key to it all, but if I don’t give a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda (Speech & Debate) as the lamplighter that steps in for Dick Van Dyke’s man of all trades to help out Poppins and the family, I’d be remiss. Miranda is incredibly talented, and the movie uses his particular talents well. He isn’t entirely credible as a Cockney, but he has the sense of the character well. And Colin Firth (The Happy Prince) brings his talents to bear well too. Even Meryl Streep (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) gets to have a bit of fun in a throw-away role.
Now on to Poppins herself. Emily Blunt (Sherlock Gnomes) is worthy of the role. She certainly brings some game, has good pipes, and brings a ton of on-screen charisma. But she isn’t quite comfortable in the role. It hangs on her like an oversized dress and feels just a little forced as she tries to make the part her own. Most of this isn’t her fault, but rather the fault of the script and direction. But to get to that, you have to acknowledge the difference in feel of the two movies.
The new installment is big and magical and entertaining, but it is more like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang than the original Poppins; much darker and with some bite. I enjoyed the choice to make it a continuation of the Banks family, but that also came with some timing issues. To make it Jane and Micheal’s lives in their prime, it had to happen between the wars…and yet, despite taking place between the wars, there is no hint of that hanging over the tale, which was odd. That darkness in the character and plot reflected more of today than the 1930s and ignored well-established and understood history.
It is the darkness that really changes the Poppins world in this movie. In fact, writer Dave Magee (Life of Pi) and director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) feel like they didn’t quite get Poppins at all in some ways. Emily Blunt is allowed to be far too arch rather than matter-of-fact in her actions and attitude. The original Poppins doesn’t have to work for anything, it all happens as she plans; no muss, no fuss. This Poppins seems to take glee in mucking about with people. It is less about wonder and magic and helping people and more about power and control.
And, on a script level, they never deal with her looking different, which felt wrong. They go out of their way to claim she looks “just the same” which is absurd and was unnecessary. Why can’t Poppins be more like Who or the Banks children recognize her but feel they remembered wrong or see her differently? Why pretend when we all know she’s been recast?
But it goes beyond these things. She is much less in control of the children in this story because she’s too intent on being the center of attention rather than controlling from the sidelines. Part of the joy of the first movie is watching Poppins get everyone to do what she wants and they need without them realizing they’ve been utterly manipulated.
In this sequel, she certainly makes demands and has some control, but the manipulations don’t feel much like they’re in her control at all. Also, one of the great things of the original was how utterly feminist it was. All the important decisions were by women. This sequel isn’t as feminist a movie…it is all about the actions of men and men’s decisions. Rather surprising given the current culture and 54 years in between flicks.
There is also another oddity in making the sequel. In the first movie, the story is really about saving Mr. Banks. The same focus is in this sequel, but because the father was the child in the first film, it somehow feels like she’s there for the children (even if the children are adults now). This isn’t an error in choices so much as just an unavoidable result, and brings in some odd echos.
OK, let’s face it, creating a sequel to such a classic is a near impossible task. Forcefully mirroring the original in structure, in many ways, hurt the overall result. This story isn’t nearly as tight. The music isn’t as nearly on point for the plot, even if it is entertaining. The story isn’t quite as satisfying. Certainly it is a level of musical in movies that isn’t seen often, making a nod back to the 40s in its scope. Kids will enjoy. Parents will reminisce. Awards will surely be offered if not gained. And it is going to be a huge success. But do yourself a favor and rewatch the original before you see this sequel (or watch it after if you don’t want to compare while watching). There is a magic to the to the 1964 classic that just isn’t replicated here, despite everyone’s efforts. I’m not even sure that it could be done in this time as we’ve become so much more jaded and aware.
I don’t mean to dissuade you from going to Mary Poppins Returns. You should. But it is impossible to see it and not think of the original. Or, for that matter, this delightful 2004 short with Andrews herself still nailing the sense and personality of her original. And, in fact, to bring this all home, I have to bend my rules a bit and go into some of the comparisons below. So don’t read on if you don’t want to have aspects of the movie spoiled.
WARNING: Some Spoilerage Lies Below
My frustration began with the opening credits. By preceding the movie proper with a lot of pre-production art, much of the plot was given away, which was a damned shame. Not sure why they didn’t follow the example of the original and just set up the tale and let Miranda be our guide. Instead, the film jumps straight into a musical number rather than framing it all, and easing us into the magical world. This is a fair choice, but it made it jarring rather than feeling like a bedtime story.
As a whole, the music and sequences aren’t nearly as tight as the first film. Everything in the first film comes back to have an effect on the resolution. That just isn’t the case for Returns. For instance, Meryl Streep’s scene, which mirror Ed Wynn’s Uncle from the original, had no impact on the story at all. Wynn’s scene supplies the necessary and plot-turning joke. Streep is just an amusing distraction with an emotional point that could have been done differently.
Likewise, the lead up to the finale with the lamplighter dance sequence has no real place, unlike chimney sweeps in the original. The sweeps seemingly overlong sequence is necessary to trigger the confrontation with Mr. Banks and so that the sweeps can shake Banks’ hand (more necessary for the children to see than the story) and it pushes Banks to his epiphany. The lamplighter sequence has no impact whatsoever. Yes there is a similar confrontation with the children, but it felt, much like Streep’s scene, to be there as a mirror to the original rather than with a purpose.
Taking it a bit further, the lamplighters do nothing for the resolution in this sequel. It is Poppins who turns back time, not the lighters. So why the whole insane sequence scaling Big Ben if she could just fly up there and move the hands?
And speaking of the finale, let’s face it, the location of the stock obvious from the moment we see the paper. I spent the whole movie waiting for them to notice it. I did like how it tied in the original kite. However, I just wish it wasn’t so bloody obvious… or that it was so we could anticipate the discovery as part of the story rather than it having to be a “surprise” near the end.
I did think the tuppence connection was nice from a story point of view. But having capitalism win over emotions and “what’s right” felt wrong for this world. Though, I will admit, it did provide a great thread for Dick Van Dyke’s return, however briefly, for the denouement.
I also do have to say I am so glad Andrews turned down the role that Angela Lansbury took on. Andrews was absolutely right, it would have been a huge distraction and dismissed Blunt’s efforts entirely.
And, finally, there were the choices for the finale, and perhaps this is where it flew off the rails the most. The ending in the original was redemptive all around, for all characters. Let’s Go Fly a Kite is an anthem of joy and possibility. In Mary Poppins Returns, Up in the Air (or whatever the song title is) just isn’t, which felt wrong for the sensibility of that world. And though I’m sure the romantic in Magee and Marshall drove the choice, having to find Jane a partner was also just the wrong message for the younger viewers.
Again, I enjoyed myself, honestly I did. But it is impossible to see this new movie and not compare and think about the differences. You should still go, just unplug a bit or accept the differences a little more than I could<g>
Talk about an unexpected treat. This film has so much going for it: action-packed, visually inventive, well acted, clever story. Amusingly, some of these are also to its detriment, especially the visually inventive aspect. But the sum total is that it is a sure-fire hit and a near lock for the Best Animation Oscar this year, with all due respect to Incredibles 2.
The cast is loaded with talent; a list too long to completely discuss. But none really stand out either. The film is a wonderfully balanced ensemble, not a collection of star voices covered by ink. That said, Shameik Moore (Dope), as Miles Morales, in the lead keeps the story pumping along with his naivete and strength. Through him we get to experience Spidey’s origin story again (and again, and again) but without it feeling like a cheap reboot. And that’s saying something for the most rebooted storyline in current cinema (though Batman and/or Superman may exceed Spidey, now that I consider the statement).
It isn’t giving anything away to say there are other Spider people. Jake Johnson (The Mummy) and Hailee Steinfeld (The Edge of Seventeen) stand out in that crowded and entertaining field . And Morales’s extended family is top-lined by Mahershala Ali (Green Book) and Lily Tomlin (Grandma). And that’s just the beginning of the talent list. On the other side of the plot, Kathryn Hahn (Hotel Transylvania 3) and Liev Schreiber (Everything is Illuminated) bring some humor and darkness to the evil side of Spidey’s world. The rest should just be a surprise.
Phil Lord, half the team behind the unexpected hit The Lego Movie, clearly loves the material and the world of comics generally. It is in every aspect of the film. And that, in part, is what I meant by it is both a strength and a weakness. The movie literally looks like a comic, with overlayed shading dots on the surface of everything, word bubbles at times, framed action panels, and even turning pages. While visually engaging, it also kept knocking me out of the movie and the action. It was too self-conscious and never really quite allowed it to just be a movie. It was a movie-comic. That isn’t necessarily bad. Lord has succeeded in doing something directors and writers have been trying to do for decades: He’s manifested the comic book experience on the screen beautifully. Only a true lover of graphic novels could have done that. Lord borrowed and expanded his lessons on The Lego Movie very nicely.
Bottom-line is that this is an amazingly fun and funny movie. Unexpected in almost every way, even while cleaving to the tropes and stories we know, love, and expect. In Dolby Cinema it was glorious and bone-rattling (despite two rather important moments being marred by loss of sound during my showing–shame on you, AMC). Whether or not you think you like animation, this isn’t what you expect or assume. I admit, I didn’t expect this to be more than a cheap cash-grab at more of the Spidey universe, but it really is something new and wonderful for audiences of pretty much all ages above age 9.
It is rare to find a near-perfect movie, from the acting to the writing to the directing. The Wife is in that category and you need to see it.
First and foremost, it is brilliantly acted by Glenn Close (Crooked House). Close dominates this film but for a single scene where, by design, Elizabeth McGovern (The Commuter) takes over. Jonathan Pryce (Breaking Glass, Game of Thrones) manages the tricky job of being at the center of the on-screen action, but ceding the focus to Closes’s title character. All around the couple are a host of well cast supporting players. Even the petulant portrayal of the son by Max Irons (Terminal) slots in wonderfully.
And while the performance alone are worth taking the time to see The Wife, that is only part of its worth and power.
Björn Runge directed this drama wonderfully. He reminds us of what an art form the media really is. For, while Jane Anderson’s (Olive Kitteridge) script is very natural, believable, and subtle, it is Björn Runge’s direction and choices that make it work. While the dialogue unrolls on screen, it is the small looks, the action in the background, and the slowly building tension that drive the tale, rarely the words themselves. This is a movie of almost pure subtext, delivered through visual cues and great acting. I do, however, give Anderson credit for her adaptation of a book that must have been loaded with internal dialogue and making that work on screen.
And then there is the ephemeral aspect of timing of this move that helps set it apart. Not to confuse things, this film would have been good at any time it was released. However, the themes are also pitch-perfect for the current times in ways that would have been hard to predict and which resonate in wonderful and uncomfortable ways.
Make time for The Wife so you know why you’re going to hear so much about it during awards season. Close is brilliant, a study in subtlety and determination. The movie gripping and inexorable. The results powerful. It approaches cinematic perfection in terms of craft and will leave you breathless through its inexorable and accelerating pace that picks you up and carries you along to the final punch. Now, forget all the hyperbole and just go let it do its thing on screen for you while it is out there to see.
Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…