We Are Many


Proof that politicians can ignore even the loudest voices of the people.

(2014) Documentary (Area 23aRichard Branson, Hans Blix, Susan Sarandon, John Le Carré, Damon Albarn, Mark Rylance, Ken Loach, Danny Glover, Tom Hayden, Brian Eno, Noam Chomsky, Ron Kovic, Jesse Jackson, Robert Greenwald, Jeremy Corbyn, Gen. Lawrence Wilkerson, Tariq Ali, Philippe Sands, John Rees, Lord Charles, Victoria Branson, Rafaella Bonini. Directed by Amir Amirani

 

“The power of the people” rests in the will of the people to act in concert. When people unite, they can accomplish great things. That is, at least, the story we’ve been told, but what if I told you that somewhere between six and thirty million people worldwide gathered on the same day around the world to protest a war – and the war happened anyway?

After 9-11, the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan because reliable intelligence had the leadership of Al-Qaeda holed up in the caves of that country. The military might of the United States and its allies quickly overwhelmed the Taliban government of Afghanistan. After the collective trauma, grief and rage of the collapse of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon, it didn’t feel like enough. The Bush Administration turned its eyes to Iraq, the country that the president’s father had invaded nearly twenty years before. Aided and abetted by the Tony Blair government in the UK, the word went out that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he would launch at the West.

We know now that those weapons of mass destruction never existed, r if they did, they didn’t exist anymore. Blair, Bush and their governments knowingly and willfully lied to their citizens in order to popularize a war that they couldn’t legally justify. Most of the people of both countries bought the lies hook, line and sinker, myself included. Not everybody did, though.

Some felt that the war was an unjust one; that the real motivation for the war was to enrich the profits of the oil companies. “No blood for oil,” was the popular chant. Protests were organized in Europe and then, although social media was in its infancy, the Internet was used to plan and co-ordinate massive rallies across the globe. While the movement began in Europe, it quickly spread to become a worldwide phenomenon.

But as we all know, all the outpouring of dissent went for naught. A month later, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom and the U.S. and many of its allies remain there to this day, 17 years later. Thousands of coalition soldiers never came home. The number of Iraqi dead may be as much as more 1,500,000. There is a little bit of a post-mortem, but other than one semi-tenuous link to much more successful protests later (more on that below), we really don’t get a sense of what the march actually accomplished, and its lasting legacy, if any.

One thing I would have liked to have seen is detailed information on how the massive march was coordinated. You get the feeling it was just kind of a grass roots seat-of-the-pants operation that just sprouted up independent of one another in various cities, countries – and Antarctica (that’s right). We get more information about the political goings-on leading up to that time – most of which is easily available elsewhere – and not nearly enough inside information on how difficult it was to coordinate the marches, the logistical issues they ran into, that sort of thing. We do get a lot of celebrity talking heads, talking about their involvement with the march. The only one I found truly compelling was Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, Lawrence Wilkerson who expresses regret now about the events that brought the United States into Iraq.

The movie was actually filmed in 2013, ten years after the protest, so there is a bit of perspective here. The film has been given a virtual theatrical release, six years after its original theatrical release in 2014. For whatever reason, it never got a North American release back then, so now that we’re dealing with massive protests around the country, a pandemic and the most contentious Presidential election since the Civil War, I guess they figured the time was right.

You also have to take into account that at the end of the day, the war happened anyway, but the filmmakers don’t really address that in any detail. They do point out a tentative connection between the protest and the Arab Spring that took place seven years later, and they may not be wrong; certainly the organizers of those protests used the march as inspiration, but how much is subject to interpretation.

It is important that we remember the march because it was an important moment in which the world came together with one voice for possibly the first time – and were ignored by their leaders. It is a sobering thought that if peaceful protests that massive in nature may no longer influence the powers that be. One wonders how far the people will have to go to get their point across now.

REASONS TO SEE: Very timely given the current climate of protest around the world.
REASONS TO AVOID: Explains why the protests were made but doesn’t really get into how this massive event was organized.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some profanity and depictions of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The protest still remains the largest worldwide gathering of people; it took place on February 15, 2003.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter on Fire
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Draupadi Unleashed

DTF


Fun in the sun in L.A.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasAl Bailey, “Christian,” Neil Jeram-Croft, Nathan Codrington. Directed by Al Bailey

 

Finding love has never been easy, other than once parents made arranged marriages for their children so the kids really didn’t have to do anything but show up at the wedding, then endure thirty years of marriage to someone they may or may not like. Later, when that wasn’t an option anymore, we hung out in bars, dated people from school, work and church, did whatever we could to meet that perfect someone. Sometimes, a friend or relative would make an introduction.

The digital age would make it easier, you might think but anyone who is a recent veteran of the dating wars will tell you it’s, if anything, harder. Dating apps more often than not hook you up with people who have fibbed about themselves, and finding love in the age of Tinder has become something of a minefield.

Al Bailey, an English filmmaker, had introduced his friend, a long-haul Scandinavian airline pilot who is called “Christian” – not his real name for reasons that will become eminently clear in a moment – to the woman that Christian eventually married, but after her tragic death, decided to make a documentary about the difficulties airline pilots face in finding love. He proposed to follow Christian around on a series of dates made through Tinder in a series of cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. Al was hoping that one of these dates would lead to lasting happiness for his friend.

That was the documentary he set out to make. What he ended up with was something very much different as Al realizes that the happy-go-lucky party guy that was so much fun to hang out with was a very different person than he thought he was. Far from looking for love, Christian turns out to be an amoral hedonist with absolutely no empathy for the women he uses so long as they provide him with immediate gratification (DTF is internet-speak for “Down to Fornicate” – except they don’t mean fornicate) and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Christian also has a drinking problem and turns up to work hung over from time to time, which concerns Al (and you as the viewer no doubt) greatly. As Christian proclaims this party lifestyle is common among airline pilots, Al makes a half-hearted attempt to investigate it but doesn’t really turn up anything concrete. I would tend to guess that it’s more a Christian problem than an industry problem; otherwise there would be a whole lot of mainstream media exposes trumpeting the state of affairs. That’s the kind of story that sells advertising – just not from the airline industry.

The more that goes on, the worse Christian’s behavior gets, leading to an incident in Las Vegas that completely changes the tenor of the film. Those who have lived with or been close to addicts are likely to find it unsurprising and sadly familiar terrain, but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid such issues, it might be a bit jaw-dropping. From there, the end is pretty much inevitable.

Bailey is a fairly affable guy and he makes someone that the audience can identify with, dancing merrily with Hare Krishna disciples early on in the film but as the tone becomes darker, the lighter side of Al becomes more like a stern parent as he struggles to rein in the irresponsible behaviors of Christian who often leaves Al and his crew hanging.

Some may be tempted to find alternate modes of travel the next time they have somewhere to be, but again, let me stress that there is no evidence that this kind of behavior is widespread in the airline industry; obviously, given the kind of stress pilots are under to begin with, it’s understandable how some pilots might traverse the primrose path into alcoholism and substance and sex addiction, but one shouldn’t view Christian as anything representative of airline pilots. Hopefully, his employers will have gotten wind of his behavior by now and taken steps to get him the help he needs, or fired his ass if he was unable to stick to it. Addiction is a morass that destroys everything in its path, including careers and friendships, and the movie is as stark a reminder of that as I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering look at addiction. The documentary evolves as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little hard for those with addicted loved ones to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity including crude sexual references, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker and his subject have not spoken since filming ended.
 BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Courage to Love
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me

Benjamin (2018)


Netflix and chill.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (ArtsploitationColin Morgan, Anna Chancellor, Phénix Brossard, Jack Rowan, Jessica Raine, Joel Fry, Mayo Simon, Mark Kermode, Gabe Gilmour, Arnab Chanda, Robin Peters, James Bloor, Jessie Cave, Mawaan Rizwan, James Lailey, Michele Belgrand, Ellie Kendrick, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Alex Lowe, Laura Matassa, Kriss Dosanjh, Joanne Howarth. Directed by Simon Amstell

 

We all have a tendency to be our own worst enemies, saying the wrong thing at exactly the worst possible time, or overthinking a project and thereby ruining it. Our insecurities have the unsettling knack of getting the better of us.

That’s true for Benjamin Oliver (Morgan), an indie film director who won a BAFTA for his first film – “the best thing I could have done is make that film and then died,” he quips – but has been struggling mightily to avoid a sophomore slump with his second film. However, in true Benjamin fashion he has taken a simple relationship and rendered it a gauntlet of pretension by adding odd clips of Buddhist monks mouthing pithy aphorisms that ultimately sound smart but don’t make the film any better, a meta conceit that one has to applaud the filmmaker for recognizing and poking fun at.

Benjamin has a group of friends who are about as messed up as he is; his acerbic producer (Chancellor) who spends much of her time propping up Benjamin’s insecurities; Stephen (Fry), a stand-up comedian whose depression sometimes turns his act into the worst therapy session imaginable; Billie (Raine), the publicist who tries in vain to mitigate Benjamin’s instincts.

Add into this mix Noah (Brossard), a fey French musician trying to make an impact on the extremely competitive London music scene who becomes Benjamin’s romantic interest, despite the fact that Benjamin is certain that he is incapable of love.

To be honest, I’m not all that familiar with the work of comedian Simon Amstell, although to be fair we Yanks have had a lot on our minds lately so following the careers of comedians across the pond hasn’t been high on our list of priorities. Still, judging from I can see here, it isn’t going to be long before he’s as well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s got that droll British sense of humor down, but tempers it with observational humor that is at times uncanny; while there are some barbs directed both at London’s art underground and at the state of romance in England in general, much of what is commented here is pretty universal. Everyone has been guilty of blurting out that one conversation-killing remark in a room full of people that you may or may not be trying to impress. I know I have.

I have this categorized as a romantic comedy, but that really isn’t precisely right. It’s not like the rom-coms you might be used to; it’s more accurately a comedy that involves romance. The movie really isn’t about Benjamin’s romantic issues, although they play a part. This is about Benjamin’s relationship with himself, and his self-destructive flaws. There’s some poignancy, but it’s not a downer of a fiilm; nor is it a life-affirming celebration either. This is the kind of movie that exhibits how life is for certain people in particular circumstances, while giving those circumstances and those people a bit of a poke in the backside.

The movie is a bit on the twee side, sort of like Belle and Sebastian covering all of Morrissey’s greatest hits and if you understand that reference, this is the movie for you. There’s enough of the jaded romantic in Amstell to make the humor biting at times, but not enough to drown the movie in ennui. There are a few false steps here and there, but not as many as you might think; The only thing that keeps me from giving this a higher score is that there is a sense that this is aimed at a certain niche of indie film buffs that might not resonate as clearly with the mainstream, but that’s quite all right – not every movie needs to appeal to the crowd that awaits the next Marvel movie with breathless anticipation.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very droll humor that fans of British comedy will love.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the twee side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual references as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on director Simon Amstell’s own experiences.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Kino Now, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Thing
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rent-a-Pal

Adrift in Soho


Soho is a world of light, and fog and shadow.

(2019) Drama (RandomOwen Drake, Caitlin Harris, Chris Wellington, Emily Seale-Jones, Angus Howard, Lauren Harris, Olly Warrington, William Chubb, William Jessop, Martin Calcroft, Warwick Evans, Anthony Burrows, Hayley Considine, Adei Bundy, Lara Graham, Luke Hicks, Tori Hope, Stella Lock, Mama Manneh, Mogs Morgan, Santiago Mosquera, Sandrea Simons.. Directed by Pablo Behrens

 

Neighborhoods have their own soul, their own character. Often they aren’t easily defined in a sentence or two, but some neighborhoods are remarkably easy to characterize.

Soho in the late 1950s was a place where drunks, dreams and would-be Bohemians hung out. While America was in the throes of the Beat Generation, Soho was London’s own heartbeat. Harry Preston (Drake) has arrived there from the provinces, wet behind the ears, hoping to write the book he knows will Change Everything. Maybe along the way, he might get laid.

He meets all sorts of characters, including the womanizing James Compton-Street (Wellington), the pretty American exchange student Doreen (Harris), radical New Cinema documentarians Jo (Seale-Jones) and Marcus (Howard), and The Count (Chubb), a literary patron. Jo and Marcus are making a documentary about Soho, but whereas Marcus is practical (he finances their efforts by shooting blue movies at local strip clubs), Jo is much more of a purist and leaves him to team up with fellow filmmaker Marty (Warrington).

The novel this is based on is something of a cult novel in the UK from original Angry Young Man Colin Wilson, who lived in Soho during the period depicted in the films. He eventually moved to the country but wrote this novel in 1961 as a kind of farewell to arms. I haven’t read the book myself, but I get the sense that it is not an easy read. So, too, is the movie based on it not an easy watch.

The movie could have used a little more of a budget to give it some scope and a better sense of place and time, but that’s not really something within the control of the filmmakers. The cast does a pretty decent job, particularly Wellington who displays a bonhomie and flair that is missing from the other characters; most of them are kind of flat and uninteresting, although the actors do the best they can. It doesn’t help that the characters spend an inordinate amount of time philosophizing about a fictional illness called “Soho-itis,” which is never fully explained in the film which is amazing, considering how much time they spend talking about it.

However, this is a gorgeous movie to look at – cinematographer Martin Kobylarz makes wonderful use of light, shadows and fog to give the viewer some compelling images. The mood is augmented by a jazzy score replete with hits from the era that are a bit on the obscure side, but fit the film perfectly.

The movie is actually a rather intelligent one; the problem is that too many of the characters are little more than stick drawings. I would have appreciated less rumination and more character development. Incidentally, viewers who prefer a more linear narrative may have some issues here; the movie is told essentially as a series of vignettes that sometimes don’t connect together well or form a really cohesive story. Still, I found that the movie held my interest for it’s nearly two hour length, which is more than I can say for other movies with higher aspirations than this one.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is exceptional.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit aimless at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Colin Wilson based all of the characters on people he met while he lived in Soho in the 1950s, although their names were all changed with the exception of Ironfoot Jack. The story itself is said to be based on something the author experienced or knew of first-hand.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Postcards from London
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
2040

Hope Gap


She strolls while he snores by the seashore.

(2019) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Screen Media) Annette Bening, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Alysha Hart, Kadrolsha Ona Carole, Nicholas Burns, Rose Keegan, Ryan McKen, Nicholas Blane, Ninette Finch, Derren Litten, Sally Rogers, Steven Pacey, Joel MacCormack, Jason Lines, Finn Bennett, Anne Bryson, Tim Wildman, Susan Tune, Joe Citro, Dannielle Woodward. Directed by William Nicholson

 

Not every marriage is eternal. Some come to an end prematurely; some after a short amount of time as the couple discovers that marriage was a terrible idea for the two of them, while others occur after years of marriage.

Grace (Bening) and Edward (Nighy) are days away from their 29th anniversary. Outwardly, they seem as comfortable together as two old shoes, but there are cracks showing. Edward is distracted, almost shut down; he barely acknowledges Grace. She badgers him, trying to get some sort of reaction from him. She senses something is wrong, but can’t fathom what it is.

Edward manages to coax their adult son Jamie (O’Connor) to their seaside home in Sussex from London. However, he has an ulterior motive; he tells Jamie that he has fallen in love with another woman and is leaving Grace. At first, Jamie is dumbstruck; he can’t believe it. But eventually he is convinced that Edward means to go through with it. And so Edward does.

Grace still loves Edward and is sure that this is just a phase, and that he will soon come to his senses and come home, but it becomes apparent that Edward is gone for good. She gets alternately despondent, angry and bitter. Jamie is caught in the middle, serving as mediator and messenger, soon realizing that he is slowly developing the same malaise that overtook his father, while as he gets to see his mother as a person rather than just a parent, understands that he never really knew her at all.

Movies about divorce are not uncommon, and often prove to be fodder for some compelling films (i.e. Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, last year’s Marriage Story). Some critics have complained that there isn’t a lot here that’s original, which I suppose has some merit until you realize that this is based on the divorce of writer/director Nicholson’s parents. I imagine it seemed terribly original to him.

What the rest of us are left with are a quest for insight; how would we handle this? Would we ever do something like this to our partner? Could someone who seemingly have the perfect marriage just watch it collapse around them? For this kind of movie to work it has to be relatable; it has to have a frame of reference that makes it compelling to the viewer. I don’t know that the insights raised here are going to resonate deeply with everyone.

That’s where some wonderful performances come in. In Bening and Nighy, we have two often underrated pros who are both about as good as anyone in the business. Nighy plays Edward as the very definition of “doddering,” he seems lost in his own home, a schoolteacher who is obsessed with historic events that happened over two centuries ago (Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow) and seems to be more in tune with the past than he is present.

I often forget how good Bening is until I see her latest film, and then I fall in love with her (as an actress) all over again. Despite a kind of dodgy British accent, she nonetheless nails her role here, giving Grace depth and edge. Often, she is almost intolerable to be around; she is confrontational, occasionally bitchy and uncompromising but it becomes clear that she is as lost in her own way as Edward is. Bening can convey more with a single glance than most actors can with pages of dialogue.

On top of the terrific performances there is some lovely cinematography of windswept beaches and the charming coastal village of Seaford where this was filmed. American audiences, though, may find it ponderous and slow-moving, the curse of the short-attention-span-afflicted Yank. In our defense, we watched too many music videos and video games growing up to accumulate the patience to, say, read a book, let alone watch a movie that requires some concentration as well as some commitment. But, sad for us Americans, the best films almost always require both.

REASONS TO SEE: Bening and Nighy are both masters of their craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on and expanded upon Nicholson’s play The Retreat from Moscow which in turn is based on his parents’ own divorce.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mentor

Postcards From London


I am young and, oh, so pretty…

(2018) LGBT Drama (Diablo/StrandHarris Dickinson, Jonah Hauer-King, Alessandro Cimadamore, Leonardo Salerni, Raphael Desprez, Jerome Holder, Leemore Marrett Jr., Silas Carson, Stephen Boxer, Leo Hatton, Emma Curtis, Ben Cura, Lew Hogan, Archie Rush, Richard Durden, Johanne Murdock, Giles New, Shaun Aylward, Rhys Yates, Georgina Strawson. Directed by Steve McLean

 

Steve McLean loves him some art, and that love is really what drives Postcards From London. Starring Beach Bums wunderkind Harris Dickinson as Jim, a stupendously naïve 18-year-old kid from Essex who goes to Jolly London and Soho specifically to chase adventure and mystery, he ends up being taken under the wing of four male escorts (Hauer-King, Cimadamore, Salerni, Desprez) who call themselves “The Raconteurs” and supply older, more discerning male clientele with post-coital conversation about literature and art.

The movie’s highly stylized look features plenty of neon and is all apparently shot on sound stages – not a single scene apparently takes place when the sun is shining. At least, we find no evidence of it. Dickinson did the callow youth thing about as well as anybody at that stage of his career, but he is given little more to work with than that his character is afflicted with Stendhal syndrome, a rare disease that causes the afflicted to lose their consciousness in the presence of beautiful art – weak in the presence of beauty, indeed. While swooning, Jim often imagines himself as part of the art, posing for Caravaggio (Cura) with his friends. These scenes are the most imaginative and notable but sadly, the film too often into pretension over its 90-minute run time.

This is certainly a work of passion which despite the fact that sex is a large part of the atmosphere, is remarkably coy about showing any. While the homoeroticism may titillate some, it is no more than you would find in the average drag show when push comes to shove. Dazzling to look at, this is indeed a film that takes the adage “live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse” a bit too closely to heart.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a semi-whimsical sense of humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries too hard to be different.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexual material, some violence and a fair amount of profanity including sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second feature McLean has directed; his first was in 1994 (Postcards From America) marking a 14-year differential between debut and sophomore effort.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trois: The Escort
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Working Man

Mary Poppins Returns


Practically perfect in every way.

(2018) Family (DisneyEmily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathaniel Saleh, Joel Dawson Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Dick van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, David Warner, Jim Norton, Norma Dumezweni, Tarik Frimpong, Sudha Bhuchar, Steve Nicolson, Christian Dixon, Karen Dotrice. Directed by Rob Marshall

 

When Disney announced a sequel to their classic Mary Poppins, purists were aghast as were many of those who grew up with the practically perfect nanny. Even though Marshall, the man who essentially resurrected the movie musical, was at the helm, most people predicted that the film would never catch on. Fortunately for the accountants at Disney, it did.

Set roughly 20 years after the original, Michael Banks (Whishaw) still lives in the Cherry Tree Lane home he grew up in. Recently widowed with three young children depending on him, he has been forced to take a job as a teller at his father’s own bank, to whom he’s deeply in debt. Now, the bank and their nasty president (Firth) are foreclosing and Michael has until Friday midnight to pay up. His only chance is to find certificates that his father willed to him, proving that the Banks family own part of the bank.

This is where Mary Poppins (Blunt) comes in. Despite the presence of housekeeper Ellen (Walters) and Michael’s union-organizing sister Jane (Mortimer) the kids are badly in need of a full-time nanny and the stern-faced Poppins intends to whip them into shape. With her friend, lamplighter Jack (Miranda) she takes the kids on adventures in the bathtub, in a chipped china bowl, in the back alleys of London and in her cousin Topsy’s (Streep) repair shop among other places.

That’s where the big yawning chasm between the original and the sequel is locate. The songs here are mainly bland and forgettable, following the standards of 21st century Broadway and pop music in general where it seems that music is being written by focus group rather than actual artists. Several of the scenes here are meant to be homages to the original but they often feel more like rip-offs.

Blunt has the thankless job of taking over for Julie Andrews who was perfect for the role and she comes very close to Andrews’ performance. You can’t fault her for that; nobody could fill Andrews’ shoes in this case. In a very gracious touch, Disney veterans Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameo appearances and show that they both can still perform; van Dyke in particular takes on an energetic dance that shows that at 93 he can still out-dance most performers 70 years younger than he.

I give Marshall credit; this is a visually striking film and it is close in tone to the original film. It feels like, in many cases, they chose to adhere to the memories of the original rather than to give the film a personality of its own. In that sense, the filmmakers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t; had they done what I suggest, it is likely that purists would have screamed bloody murder. It is in a real sense a no-win situation for the filmmakers, despite the hefty box office receipts. I don’t know if Disney is planning to make further sequels to the film; the box office suggests that they could. I hope, however, that they choose to venture a little further on a path of their own if they do.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of CGI Magic. Always a joy to see Angela Lansbury and Dick van Dyke.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it way too safe.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild thematic elements as well as fantasy action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the role of Mary Poppins was first offered to Julie Andrews, she turned it down because she was pregnant; Walt Disney felt so strongly she was perfect for the role that production was delayed to accommodate her pregnancy. History was repeated when production was delayed on the sequel to accommodate the pregnancy of lead Emily Blunt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Cotton Wool

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms


Nearly every little girl dreams of being a princess.

(2018) Fantasy (DisneyMackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren Morgan Freeman, Tom Sweet, Ellie Bamber, Jayden Forowa-Knight, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Hart, Meera Syal, Omid Djalili, Eugenio Derbez, Jack Whitehall, Nick Mohammed, Charles Streeter, Gustavo Dudamel, Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin, Anna Madeley. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

 

A perennial Christmas family favorite is the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker. Loosely based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the timeless music is like an old friend and this one ballet accounts for nearly half the revenue of all ballet companies in the United States. That can be read as depressing or impressive. In either case, it speaks volumes about how Americans feel about this venerable ballet.

Strangely, there has never been a film adaptation that has captured the magic of the ballet; most of those that have tried have literally been filmed versions of the ballet and have looked terribly stage-y. The wizards over at Disney have thought to create a live-action narrative film that features the ballet but is a story unto its own. Chock full of CGI and boasting an impressive cast, Disney was hoping to create a classic holiday favorite and maybe even a franchise. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Clara (Foy) is still mourning the death of her mother (Madeley) as she and her father (Macfadyen) and brother (Sweet) try to cope with the first Christmas since the tragedy. Before she died, Clara’s mother had gotten presents for her and her brother; Clara’s was a locked Faberge egg with a note “All you need is inside.” There was no key, however.

Clara’s godfather, the kindly toymaker Drosselmeyer (Freeman) is throwing his annual Christmas Eve soiree. Clara, who has a keen intellect and an engineer’s touch with mechanical things, feels a particular bond with the eccentric toymaker. He has attached dozens of strings in the courtyard with the names of his guests on them; each string leads to the Christmas present of the named guest. Clara’s leads to…somewhere else.

It is a different dimension, one with four realms that her mother created. The four realms and their regents; the Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley) of the Realm of Sweets, Shiver (Grant) of the Realm of Snowflakes, Mother Ginger (Mirren) of the Realm of Amusements and Hawthorne (Derbez) of the Realm of Flowers. One of them has turned evil and seeks to conquer all the realms, or destroy them if they cannot be conquered. It’s not the one you think. Aiding Clara in her quest to set things to rights is Hoffmann (Forowa-Knight), a soldier who looks like a nutcracker.

Visually, this is a rich, sumptuous work. The sets, inspired by the ballet, are gorgeous as is the costuming. The CGI is is absolutely marvelous as well although some of it might be squirm-inducing; the Mouse King, for example, is made up of thousands of regular-sized mice who are combined into a single giant-sized mouse. Me, I would have rather seen a CGI Mickey here. At least it would have been more family-appropriate.

I found myself drawn to the ballet sequences which is impressive, when you consider that I’m not all that interested in dance. They are beautifully staged and nicely realized by a troupe of world-class dancers led by the incomparable Misty Copeland.

Despite the great cast, the performances are oddly unfulfilling. Foy has proven to be a talented actress but she’s given a British accent here and it is, quite frankly, awful. It sounds like an American amateur with no ear for accents trying to do an imitation. I also found it strange that while the film is set in London, most of the names are German. They should have just bitten the bullet and set the story in Germany; it would have made more sense.

While this is beautiful to look at with a feeling of a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter night, the movie remains sadly unsatisfying. The plot is convoluted and seems to be an attempt to reimagine a classic story as a young adult adventure story. Disney is usually fairly adept at translating classic stories to the big screen but they made a major misstep here.

REASONS TO SEE: The ballet sequences are wonderful. The set design is eye-popping.
REASONS TO AVOID: A tremendous cast is wasted. Foy’s English accent is atrocious.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hallstrom completed principal filming but was unavailable for the extensive reshoots, which Johnston took charge of for 32 days. Hallstrom returned to oversee post-production and insisted that Johnston receive co-director credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Maserati: 100 Years Against All Odds

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald


An expanding family portrait.

(2018) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Dan Fogler, Zoë Kravitz, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Katherine Waterston, Jude Law, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, David Wilmot, Brontis Jodorowsky, Jessica Williams, Hugh Quarshie, Isaura Barbé-Brown, Victoria Yeates, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Derek Riddell, Poppy Corby-Tuech. Directed by David Yates

 

The Harry Potter franchise has been nothing short of a cash cow for Warner Brothers. After Harry’s adventures came to an end, we looked forward with some eagerness to the adventures of New Scamander in a prequel of sorts. When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them became the expected massive hit, the proposed trilogy was expanded into a five-film series.

Heavy on exposition, the second film in the series has turned out to be a bloated mess. The evil wizard Grindelwald (Depp) has escaped from captivity and looks to continue his quest to amass an army to take over the world and rule all muggles. He has seen a vision of the future and it includes a mushroom cloud, so one can hardly blame him there – we muggles certainly made a hash of things.

Newt Scamander (Redmayne) would rather continue to gather magical beasts from around the world but he is under a travel ban until his old teacher Albus Dumbledore (Law) gives him a new quest – to find Creedence (Miller), the emotionally abused young man from the first film. It turns out that the Ministry of Magic is also after him. And so is Grindelwald. Newt, aided by the woman he loves, American auror Tina Goldstein (Waterston), her ditzy sister Queenie (Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend (as well as Newt’s buddy from the first film) Jacob the Baker (Fogler) will have to step lively if they are to find the elusive Creedence, who is searching for his past so he may discover truly who and what he is. He is, for all intents and purposes, the crux of the show.

The tone is distinctly darker here, as most second films of fantasy series’ are. J.K. Rowling’s world-building skills are beyond reproach but I get the sense she was trying to accomplish too much with this film; in addition to the main characters from the first film there are also plenty of new ones running around, so much so that it becomes difficult to determine who’s who and what’s what. The movie gets bogged down in plot exposition and character development, eschewing action a little bit too much.

The special effects are wondrous, of course, as you would expect. There are plenty of amazing creature effects here, both CGI and practical. The cast does it’s level best but I got the sense that they, too, were confused by what was going on behind them. The third film, after the disappointing reviews and box office of this film, is being retooled but hopefully it will right the course for the series which has made a most definite misstep.

REASONS TO SEE: The beasties continue to be nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: Underwhelming performances and plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Newt Scamander’s basement, where he keeps his beasts, was inspired by an M.C. Escher print (Relativity).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews, Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eragon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mowgli

Bohemian Rhapsody


Freddy Mercury in his element.

(2018) Musical Biography (20th Century FoxRami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Meneka Das, Ace Bhatti, Priya Blackburn, Dermot Murphy, Dickie Beau, Tim Plester, Jack Roth, Max Bennett, Felipe Bejarano, Neil Fox-Roberts, Michelle Duncan. Directed by Bryan Singer

 

For an outsider, Freddie Mercury became symbolic to a lot of people. To people of my generation, he was a peerless rock star, perhaps the very embodiment of one. To music historians, he brought grand opera into rock and roll, with all the silliness and grandeur that implies. To the LGBTQ community, he was one of their own who made it big on his own terms. He was the voice of his generation.

Of course, to play such a bigger-than-life performer, you’re going to need a bigger-than-life performance and fortunately, that is delivered here. Rami Malek, best-known at the time for the TV series Mr. Robot, won the Oscar for his portrayal of Mercury and justifiably so – it was one of the best performances of the decade. Malek inhabits the role completely and gets every little nuance right. It is as close to having Freddy back as we’re likely to get.

That said, the movie isn’t without its problems. Like a lot of music industry biopics, it tends to focus on the sensational – the parties, the lifestyle, the drugs and the sex – and while not ignoring the creative process completely, at least gives it less attention than it deserves. It’s easy to be caught up in the excesses, and yes, the band was known for them, but that wasn’t all they were.

They were (and are) also extraordinary musicians and incredibly creative, as the music attests. The film uses the music of Queen to great effect. The re-creation of their triumphant Live-Aid performance in 1985 after an absence of several years opens and closes the film. Many believe that it was one of the best rock and roll performances of all time and they’re not wrong.

Queen is remembered for merging rock and roll and opera, with all the silliness and high drama that it entails, so perhaps the movie was destined to have its share of drama – director Bryan Singer was fired and the film was finished by an uncredited Dexter Fletcher late in the process – but for those who loved Queen (like Da Queen, for example) this is absolutely required viewing. The real challenge for any musical biopic is that it have appeal not just to the main fan base of the act, but also to casual fans as well. I believe even those who weren’t necessarily Queen devotees will get something out of this film, if nothing else Malek’s incredible performance.

REASONS TO SEE: Malek gives the performance of a lifetime. Uses the music of Queen magnificently.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes, a little gossipy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, plenty of sexuality, adult thematic content and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek wore a prosthetic device to re-create Mercury’s famous overbite. After shooting concluded, he kept the prosthetic and eventually had it cast in gold.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocketman
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Church and State