Tag Archives: C+

MARY POPPINS RETURNS

Producer: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca and Marc Platt
Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: David Magee
Stars: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Jim Norton and Noma Dumezweni
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

C+

One can imagine, given the studio’s zeal to redo its old properties, that somebody in the inner circle occasionally raised the possibility of remaking the 1964 “Mary Poppins,” but that wiser heads prevailed, arguing that the movie was too beloved to be simply duplicated. But what has instead resulted is a sequel that attempts to be a virtual carbon copy of the original, a remake in everything but name—and charm. It follows a dictum about sequels pronounced years ago by ersatz drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs: just make the same movie over again.

Not that this “Mary Poppins Returns” uses the old screenplay or the old songs. But David Magee’s new script follows most of the same beats the first film did, and each of the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman has been patterned after a number from the 1964 movie. The visual elements are reminiscent of the earlier film, too—from sequences defying gravity to mixtures of live-action with colorful 2D animation (the latter nicely done under the supervision of Jim Capobianco). The makers have deliberately striven for a degree of familiarity that will play into older members of the audience’s longing for nostalgia while also satisfying the kiddies.

What the movie proves, however, is that unlike love (at least as the Frank Sinatra song would have it), it’s not necessarily lovelier the second time around. Despite the obvious pains director Rob Marshall and his team have taken to evoke their movie’s iconic predecessor—the picture is predictably gorgeous, with a lovely production design (by John Myhre) and costumes (by Sandy Powell), captured in lustrous images by cinematographer Dion Beebe—it resembles nothing so much as a flop Broadway musical from the sixties, one of those shows that followed a prescribed formula so dutifully that it wound up feeling determinedly second-rate.

Magee’s screenplay could be subtitled “The Next Generation.” During the Great Depression (or “Slump,” as the Brits call it), the Banks children from the first film are now grown up: Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a teller at Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, while Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps him keep the family home organized, alongside their semi-dotty housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters), at least in the time she can spare from her activism in support of the hard-pressed working poor.

But the family is struggling, and not just because of the financial downturn. Michael’s wife has recently died, leaving the grief-stricken man to care for their three children—twins Annabel and John (Pixie Davies and Nathanael Saleh) and younger brother Georgie (Joel Dawson). Sad and distracted, Michael has neglected to keep up payments on a loan from the bank, and a crisis occurs when a couple of collectors (Jeremy Swift and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) arrive, demanding full repayment in just five days. Though his boss Wilkins (Colin Firth), the bank’s president, assures Michael he’ll help as much as possible, the two-faced scoundrel is actually interested only in multiplying foreclosures, with the Banks house among them.

Fortunately Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) comes floating from the sky to save the day, in her usual indirect fashion. The formidable lady takes the children on fanciful trips to dream locales—a glitzy music hall housed inside a painted porcelain bowl, an underwater world reached via a bathtub—and for a visit with her wacky cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), whose shop has the odd habit of revolving so that people might wind up on the ceiling.

While reviving the youngsters’ spirits in the face of loss, Mary also steers the family toward the recovery of some mislaid bank shares that, if found, will save the family home. When the deadline for presenting them is in danger of running out, moreover, she engineers an intervention that literally stops time—shades of Richard Donner’s “Superman.” She’s also instrumental in providing a magical finale that’s literally lighter than air. In all of this she’s aided by Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a smiling, athletic lamplighter who’s the movie’s stand-in for Dick Van Dyke’s Bert and a prospective romantic interest for Jane.

Blunt proves an admirable successor to Julie Andrews. She doesn’t have as distinctive a voice, but she sings quite well, and brings a delightfully fastidious manner to the character, never descending into the saccharine. Miranda is less successful. At least in this instance, he seems to be one of those performers who seem perfect for the stage, where distance tones down his slightly overbearing persona before it reaches an audience’s eyes and ears; on screen, he comes on too strong, badgering rather than casually enticing. Perhaps over time he can moderate that toothsome smile, but now it’s too much, and his dancing is also overly strenuous.

It’s Miranda’s misfortune that he must anchor a couple of big ensemble production numbers in which he’s accompanied by what amounts to a chorus line from Forty-Second Street. They’re among the elaborately choreographed sequences most reminiscent of that flop sixties musical (the choreography is by Marshall and John DeLuca). But even they pale beside Streep’s scene, to a tune titled “Turning Turtle,” which she belts out with a heavy accent while dancing around that revolving room—much less winningly than Fred Astaire once did. The song is one of the worst in the movie, and the whole sequence is like the intended show-stopper in a Broadway bomb that stops the show for all the wrong reasons.

Generally, the quieter numbers work better, including Blunt’s “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and Whishaw’s “A Conversation.” Otherwise, though, Whishaw is pretty much wasted, though not as much as Mortimer, who has little to do but smile vigorously. The kids are alright and Walters brings some of her natural wildness to Ellen, while Firth carries off his Snidely Whiplash impression with the élan of a practiced ham. But there’s a curiously unfunny bit by David Warner as an elderly admiral who shoots off cannons from his home next to the Banks domicile. On the other hand, devotees will be overjoyed when Van Dyke shows up for a cameo toward the close, and equally so when Angela Lansbury leads the final number, “Nowhere to Go But Up.”

That song title, unfortunately, isn’t a proper anthem for “Mary Poppins Returns,” because it’s certainly not an improvement on the predecessor it strives so determinedly to emulate. Still, parents searching for familiar family-friendly fare (especially those with a soft spot for the first movie) are likely to embrace it—something that “Poppins” creator P.L. Travers probably would not do; she reportedly disliked the 1964 picture and doubtlessly would be even less pleased with this one.

THE MULE

Producer: Clint Eastwood, Dan Friedkin, Jessica Meier, Tim Moore, Kristina Rivera and Bradley Thomas
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Nick Schenk
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Taissa Farmiga, Michael Pena, Alison Eastwood, Andy Garcia, Dianne Wiest, Laurence Fishburne, Ignacio Serricchio, Ray Hernandez, Lobo Sebastian, Manny Montano, Eugene Cordero, Noel Gugliemi, Robert LaSardo, Lauren Dean, Victor Rasuk, Jill Flint and Clifton Collins, Jr.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

C+

Earlier this year Robert Redford gave us “The Old Man and the Gun.” Now Clint Eastwood offers what might be called “The Old Man and the Coke.” Both David Lowery’s film and Eastwood’s “The Mule” are adapted, rather loosely, from profiles about real people—the former from David Grann’s New Yorker article about geriatric bank robber Forrest Tucker and the latter from Sam Dolnick’s New York Times Magazine piece about elderly drug runner Leo Sharp—and serve as perhaps valedictory vehicles for screen icons. Both are also leisurely and ruminative. Lowery’s is the better film; while Eastwood’s is a distinct improvement over his last, the rambling semi-documentary “The 15:17 to Paris,” it still comes across as more flat and lackadaisical than genuinely introspective and revealing.

In the case of “The Mule,” screenwriter Nick Schenk, who also wrote Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” has gone a highly fictionalized route. Sharp’s character has been rechristened Earl Stone, and has been relocated from Michigan City, Indiana and Detroit, to Illinois—specifically Peoria (where, one suspects, it will, according to the old line, play well) and Chicago. Stone remains, however, the champion hybridizer of day lilies that Sharp was—at least in the prologue set at the turn of the century, when he’s shown being feted at a flower convention while skipping the wedding of his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood). Unhappily the rise of the Internet ruins his business and leaves him, a decade-plus later, broke, with his house foreclosed on by the bank.

Now homeless, he drives his packed pickup to the house of his affectionate granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga), who’s about to get married. There he encounters not only a furious Iris and his equally contemptuous ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), but a wedding guest who offers him the phone number of a guy who’s on the lookout for unsuspicious-looking drivers willing to transport goods from Arizona to Detroit in their own vehicles for good cash. Anxious to earn money to pay for the cash bar at Ginny’s reception, Earl bites, and he so becomes the titular drug courier nicknamed Tata, turning what he initially intended to be a one-time gig into a permanent occupation as he aims to fill not only his needs—reclaiming his house, buying a new pickup—but those of others, like a contribution to reopen the recently burned-out Peoria branch of the VFW.

The details of Earl’s business dealings with his Mexican cartel associates—the fellows he picks up the drugs from; Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), his often exasperated handler; Laton (Andy Garcia), the kingpin who comes to like the old geezer so much he invites him to his estate for a party—are treated in a fashion that mixes modest tension with bits of humor, not only when his stay at Laton’s spread includes some frisky escapades with scantily-clad young women but in episodes that occur along the road, as when Earl stops to help a stranded family fix a flat or drags Julio to lunch at a favorite sandwich place.

The intent of it all is to allow Eastwood to play Earl as the sort of cantankerous old coot who might be a bit addled (or is at least pretending to be so), with some retrograde notions about race and cultural differences, but is still lovable and good-hearted beneath that crusty, non-PC exterior—and mentally sharp when he wants to be, as when he smears Ben-gay on his hands to ward off a drug-sniffing dog. You know—as if Earl were Clint Eastwood.

Juxtaposed with that plot thread are a couple of others. One centers on Earl’s attempts to reconnect with his family, trying to make up for the neglect of earlier years. The other involves the search for the mysterious courier by the Chicago office of the DEA, headed by a typically gruff chief (Laurence Fishburne) who pushes two agents—newly-arrived Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his partner (Michael Peña) to catch the elusive mule. The scenes of their working with an informant to collect information on the cartel’s operations and identify the courier are among the movie’s dullest, particularly since they’re clumsily written and slackly directed (though, to be fair, they allow for one of the picture’s strongest moments, when a terrified Mexican-American guy is stopped along the interstate for questioning). That includes unlikely meetings between Earl and Colin at a motel and waffle shop.

The various strands culminate in a prolonged last act that’s meant to be both tense and emotional but winds up succeeding at neither. The complications involve an abrupt change in cartel management and a sudden serious illness in Earl’s family that, taken together, result in real danger for the old man; that’s conjoined with the success of the DEA operation in finally tracking Earl down. Bringing the different elements together necessitates some sad clichés (like the one about a person whose single instance of discomfort immediately becomes terminal). Even more damaging, it involves significant implausibility, not least in a failure to explain how an imminent threat of death simply disappears. And it all ends not in excitement, but with a simple, lethargic winding down.

Still, there’s Eastwood to enjoy, and while he doesn’t really bring much to Earl that we haven’t seen him do before, it’s pleasant to see him go through the paces again, even if his obvious physical frailty comes as a bit of a shock. Nobody else particularly impresses—Cooper, Wiest, Peña and Fishburne are all pretty much wasted, although Garcia gets another opportunity to exhibit his natural smoothness and a few of the lesser players are amusing even in stereotypical parts. Cinematographer Yves Belanger’s unfussy lensing and Arturo Sandoval’s modest but effective score are helpful contributions.

“The Mule” is well-titled—it moseys rather than sprints, and ultimately doesn’t offer much beyond the opportunity to see Clint Eastwood playing himself in front of the camera once more. For some, that will be enough.