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5 Ways Rocketman > Bohemian Rhapsody


As the closing credits rolled on Rocketman at the surburban New Jersey theater where I saw it, one moviegoer turned to another and said, “Well, it was no Bohemian Rhapsody.” I couldn’t agree more, although I’m pretty sure he meant it as an insult, and I see it as a compliment. I didn’t hate the Freddie Mercury biopic, but I didn’t love it either. I’m similarly ambivalent about the music of Elton John, but Rocketman soars where Rhapsody remained pedestrian. Let me count the ways it’s superior.

Taron Egerton does his own singing. I wouldn’t have given Best Actor to Rami Malek, who overly relied on his prosthetic teeth and merely lip-synced Mercury’s vocals. Vice‘s Christian Bale, on the other hand, vanished into the character of Dick Cheney. Egerton pulls off an analagous act of dramatic alchemy, transforming himself into John both physically and vocally. I was initially disappointed when I read that Egerton’s Legend co-star Tom Hardy dropped out of the role of Elton, but now I can’t imagine anyone playing him better.

It’s not a Bryan Singer movie. Long before he was accused of being a sexual predator, I found Singer guilty of being criminally overrated as a director. (I walked out of an early screening of The Usual Suspects, figuring no one would ever care about such a headache-inducingly pretentious piece of claptrap.) Rocketman‘s director, Dexter Fletcher, took over for Singer after he was fired from Rhapsody, and I choose to attribute everything good about it to the fill-in.

Rocketman takes chances artistically. Whereas Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for Rhapsody was a predictable, paint-by-numbers rock biopic, Lee Hall’s Rocketman script dares to stage musical numbers, give lyrics to other characters (apt, since John rarely writes his own words), and flirt with surrealism. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Hall and John are in sync creatively, since the scribe also wrote Billy Elliot, which the rocker turned into a transcendent Broadway show. And in a neat bit of symmetry, the original Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell, plays John’s frequent lyricist Bernie Taupin.

Rocketman doesn’t skirt around its subject’s sexuality. Rhapsody seemed to want to have it both ways, reducing Mercury’s orientation to furtive truck-stop glances and playing up his romance with Mary Austin. Rocketman, on the other hand, treats John’s marriage to Renate Blauel as the sham it was and leans into his carnal connection to manager John Reid (Game of Thrones vet Richard Madden). Small world: Reid was also a character in Rhapsody and was portrayed by another GoT alum, Aidan Gillen.

It’s not a one-man show. Malek’s Mercury dominated Rhapsody so thoroughly that the other members of Queen seemed almost interchangeable. Rocketman makes room for more actors to shine, most notably Bell, whose understated performance perfectly offsets the larger-than-life Egerton and turns the film into a platonic love story between the two men. The biggest surprise, however, is Bryce Dallas Howard’s nuanced work as Elton’s alternately supportive and selfish mum. She’s less than a decade older than Egerton and an American to boot, yet she’s completely convincing.

Oh, and one more thing: Make sure you stay through the closing credits (unlike those guys in my theater), because the filmmakers demonstrate how faithfully they recreated Elton’s outlandish outfits and other visual details of his life. To paraphrase one of his Lion King songs, that’s when you can really feel the love tonight.

Montclair 2019: The British Are Coming!

Think of it as the Second British Invasion: Four music-themed films from the U.K. landed in New Jersey at this year’s Montclair Film Festival. One of them, Blinded by the Light, was aptly inspired by the Garden State’s own Bruce Springsteen, while the others were rooted in the sounds of Beatles, the Rolling Stones and classic Nashville. While two hit exhilarating high notes, the others feel somewhat out-of-tune.

The best of the bunch, Wild Rose, features a star-making performance by Jessie Buckley (Beast) as a Scottish single mom with dreams of country stardom. Like the Glaswegian love child of Coal Miner’s Daughter‘s Sissy Spacek and The Rose‘s Bette Midler, she simultaneously channels Loretta Lynn and Janis Joplin. Buckley’s matched by two-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters (Educating Rita, Billy Elliot) as her working-class ma who’d rather see Rose stay close to home and take care of her kids than chase her passion to Nashville. I’ve seen Wild Rose twice now — it also played at the Tribeca Film Festival — and both times it’s brought me both goosebumps and tears.

Blinded by the Light similarly deals with a young working-class Brit — in this case, the teenage son (the wonderful Viveik Kalra) of Pakistani immigrants in 1987 — who clashes with a parent (Kulvinder Ghir, a likely Oscar contender) over his ardent affinity for American music. Based on the true story of the Boss-obsessed journalist Sarfraz Manzhoor, this giddy crowd-pleaser skirts the edges of surrealism in sequences when tunes like “Promised Land” and “Born to Run” come alive on screen, yet the film wisely remains grounded in gritty reality. While focusing on the specifics of its Muslim lead characters’ lives, cowriter-director Gurinder Chadha has fashioned a universal tale of love and acceptance that could cross over to an even broader audience than her 2002 breakout hit, Bend It Like Beckham.

I wish I felt the same level of enthusiasm for Yesterday, but this high-concept fantasy from the wildly mismatched team of director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and writer Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) never transcends its gimmicky premise: What if a global power outage caused almost everybody on Earth to forget that the Beatles ever existed? Despite a charming lead performance from big-screen newcomer Himesh Patel as a struggling British singer-songwriter who takes advantage of this far-fetched situation, the film plays like a greatest-hits collection of rom-com clichés. Ed Sheeran and Kate McKinnon provide game support, but Lily James can’t redeem the thankless role of a friend-zoned manager who pines for Patel’s Jack Malik. Plus, Boyle’s and Curtis’ choice to ignore Jack’s ethnicity (aside from a sly White Album joke) only makes Yesterday seem even more generic.

Last, and sadly least, is The Quiet One, a documentary profile of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. Director Oliver Murray was given unprecedented access to Wyman’s exhaustive archive of his career and hasn’t been able to shed much light on the personality of the so-called “Stone Face.” The movie skims over the controversial parts of Wyman’s life — including his marriage to Mandy Smith, a model he met when he was 47 and she was 13. Only the film’s final scene, in which he breaks down in tears as he recalls meeting Ray Charles backstage at a concert and declining an offer to play on the soul legend’s next album because “I didn’t think I was good enough,” do we get any real insight into Wyman’s personality. It just goes to show, you can’t always get what you want.

Tribeca 2019: True Crimes and Misdemeanors

If I learned one thing from the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, it’s that true crime doesn’t pay — most of the time. Four of the movies I saw were fictionalized versions of real-life crime stories, and the one based on the least familiar case proved the only gem.

The Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile; the Manson family saga Charlie Says; and the thinly fictionalized Patty Hearst drama American Woman all committed the same misstep: trying to tell a breathe new life into a too-often-told story by shifting the point of view to bystanders with varying degrees of innocence. But by moving the focus away from the central criminal, the films lessened their impact.

Extremely Wicked is seen through the eyes of Bundy’s naive wife (Lily Collins). Charlie Says turns Manson into a supporting character for a tale of his female followers. And American Woman keeps almost all of Hearst’s law-breaking off-screen while dwelling on an activist (Downsizing standout Hong Chau) who gave her shelter.

Zac Efron and Matt Smith deliver solid work as Bundy and Manson, respectively, but Sarah Gadon barely registers as the Hearst character. The directors don’t reach the level of their previous work. Extremely Wicked pales by contrast to filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s Netflix docu-series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Mary Harron’s Charlie Says can’t compete with her superior shocker American Psycho. And Semi Challas — the Mad Men alum who made American Woman — seems to have edited out everything interesting from her 85-minute misfire.

Christoph Waltz makes none of these mistakes with his directorial debut Georgetown, in which he also stars as a character based on Albrecht Muth, a flamboyant fabulist who murdered his nonagenerian wife (Vanessa Redgrave, no less), a D.C. socialite, in 2011. Because most people don’t know the details of this story, it feels fresh, and Waltz keeps it zipping along with a zesty classical score and fine performances from his cast, which also boasts Annette Bening as the victim’s suspicious daughter.

The best crime stories I saw at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, however, were also set in our nation’s capitol, but they weren’t true — nor were they presented in films. The independent TV pilot D.C. Noir, an anthology comprised of four narrative threads set in the early 2000s, felt like it could become Washington’s version of The Wire. Not for nothing does it come from the mind of mystery novelist George Pelecanos, a D.C. denizen who wrote for David Simon’s seminal Baltimore drama. Which just goes to show truth isn’t always stranger, or more interesting, than fiction.

5 Reasons Why Captain Marvel Crash-Lands

captain-marvel-poster-2I wanted to like Captain Marvel. I’m all for female superheroes, I loved Brie Larson in Room, and I was a big fan of cowriter-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s feature debut, Half Nelson. But it’s just… not good. Here’s why:

She doesn’t know who she is, and neither do we. Carol Danvers… er, Vers… spends most of the movie trying to figure out if she’s human or Kree (an alien race locked in a war with the rival Skrulls) or what. As a result, she’s not a very well-developed character, and even an Oscar-winning actress like Larson can’t give her much definition. Even her powers are kind of dull — all she can do until near the very end is shoot proton blasts from her fists. And maybe I missed it, but does she ever really become Captain Marvel (or is it pronounced Mar-vell… rhymes with Carvel)?

She’s not the only underdeveloped character. As Kree and Skrull leaders, Jude Law and Ben Mendelsohn seem stuck on sci-fi auto-pilot, and Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Chan get so little screen time as Kree underlings that they appear to be there only as diversity window dresssing. And in a dual role as Carol’s scientific mentor and a God-like intelligence, Annette Bening still delivers a half-baked performance.

The movie takes its ’90s setting a bit too literally. Carol crash-lands on Earth in 1995 (all the better not to overlap with the Avengers franchise’s current timeline), and it tries to wring laughs from references like Radio Shack and Blockbuster Video. But does it have to feel like a movie that would’ve gone straight to Blockbuster back in the day? With its schlocky effects and uneven tone — sometimes jokey, sometimes painfully earnest — it feels like a pre-MCU flick like Daredevil or Elektra.

Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t need to be digitally de-aged. Because of the film’s time frame, Jackson’s Nick Fury and his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) are made to look younger with not-so-special effects. Sam Jackson doesn’t need any m’f-in f/x! He’s the youngest-looking septuagenarian on Earth. It’s just distracting. And couldn’t they make Gregg look like he’s not wearing a bad toupee?

It resembles a Star Wars movie than a Marvel movie. And not one of the good Star Wars movies. I’m talking Episode 1-3. Rubbery alien makeup, spaceship battles, mini-holograms… help us, Stan Lee-Kenobi, you’re our only hope! Too bad the Marvel mastermind passed away after making a cameo in this movie — they could’ve used him in the editing room. ‘Nuff said.

Why Alita: Battle Angel is Hell from A to Z


It’s only fitting that Alita: Battle Angel opens atop a massive scrap heap: This clanking monstrosity is cobbled together from cast-off parts of better films. Here’s an A to Z guide of the movies it rips off.

The Abyss/Titanic Co-writer/producer James Cameron not only channels his own soggy relics when Rosa Salazar’s titular cyborg dives deep underwater to dredge up her own discarded body, but also through the godawful dialogue. To wit(lessness), Alita tells her creator: “You told me the story of the war when the ground shook and the sky burned. Of the ones that survived who awoke to a differed world, where the powerful can prey on you. But that’s not the way it has to be.” It sure as hell isn’t.

Big Eyes Hat tip to Alvaro Rodriguez, who co-wrote a much better film with Alita director Robert Rodriguez, Machete. He noted that Alita echoes Tim Burton’s biopic of Walter Keane by casting Christoph Waltz as an artist with a fixation for bug-eyed girls.

Blade Runner Ok, pretty much every dystopian sci-fi movie since 1982 owes a debt to the setting of Ridley Scott’s classic, and Alita‘s “Iron City” is no exception.

Ex Machina Alex Garland’s 2014 gem features a cyborg with a pretty human face and a rockin’ robot body who falls in love with a human. What it doesn’t feature is cringe-worthy banter like this: Alita: Does it bother you that I’m not completely human?
Hugo: You are the most human person I have ever met.

Frankenstein/Pinocchio Waltz’s Dr. Dyson Ido stitches together Gepetto and Dr. Victor Frankenstein, as he combines body parts from dead humans and robots to create a “real” girl — who even refers to herself as a “puppet” at one point.

From Hell (and every other Jack the Ripper movie ever made) A psycho is stalking Iron City’s streets, slashing women to pieces, just like Jack. And this film is from hell.

Get Smart Alita gives herself the number “99” when she’s playing Motorball (see below). Maybe it’s a reference to Barbara Feldon’s secret agent in the ’60s spoof, maybe not. But one thing is for sure: Unlike Get Smart‘s Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Alita‘s creators have no idea how ridiculous their project is.

Gladiator/Harry Potter/Rollerball Alita competes to be the champion of Motorball, a roller-derbyesque sport played in front of a coliseum of bloodthirsty fans. It mashes up Maximus (from yet another Ridley Scott epic), Quidditch and… well, Rollerball.

Hillary Clinton for President After Alita wipes the floor with a bunch of bad guys, Hugo declares, “I’m with her.” A political in-joke?

The Matrix/Replicas Mahershala Ali’s villain Vector evokes Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, right down to the cool shades. And the slo-mo action sequences that blew our minds 20 years ago when The Matrix came out now just seem passé. Alita is more akin to Keanu Reeves’ recent flop Replicas, as Waltz recreates a cyber version of his dead daughter. But creatively, both Alita and Replicas are strictly DOA.

Memento and every other amnesia movie ever made Alita is trying to recover the lost memory of her earlier life. I wish I could forget ever having seen Alita.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail Several characters lose their limbs and keep on fighting. Sadly, none of them say, a la the Black Knight, “You yellow bastard, come back here and take what’s coming to ya! I’ll bite your legs off!”

Rebel Without a Cause Hugo is a leather-jacketed motorcycle rider who takes Alita up to a Griffith Observatory-like overlook with a stunning view of Iron City. Only Keann Johnson, who plays Hugo, is less James Dean than Paula Deen: a real turn-off.

The Terminator/Terminator 2: Judgment Day Once again, Cameron pays homage to himself, from the kick-ass female protagonist to the killer cyborgs. This wasn’t what we had in mind when Arnold Schwarzenegger first declared, “I’ll be back.”

The Wizard of Oz Alita dreams of reaching a better world up in the sky —somewhere over the rainbow, if you will. While she rips out her heart and offers it to Hugo in the film’s most jaw-droppingly literal metaphor, what Alita, and Alita, really need is a brain.

Five Reasons Why Cold Pursuit Blows

Cold-Pursuit-poster-2It’s impossible to watch Cold Pursuit without seeing it refracted through the cracked prism of the horrific, idiotic racist revenge fantasy Liam Neeson recently confessed. But I tried. After all, it’s a remake of In Order of Disappearance, a 2014 Norwegian film (also directed by Hans Petter Moland) that I admired. And I’m a proud aficionado of Neeson’s vengeance oeuvre — not the formulaic Taken trilogy, but The Grey (which made my list of 2012’s best films) and 2015’s criminally underrated Run All Night.

But even if Neeson hadn’t made the most insensitive racial comments this side of Gov. Ralph Northam, there would still be no way but to conclude that Cold Pursuit is one of the worst — and yes, most racist — movies I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s why.

Liam Neeson is on auto-snowplow… er, pilot. In the aftermath of wife Natasha Richardson’s tragic 2009 death — eerily, from a fall on a ski slope — Neeson plumbed the depths of his familial grief in The Grey, Taken 1, 2 and 3, etc. But he’s played that note so many times now he just seems bored as a snowplow operator driven to wipe out the men responsible for the death of his son. The victim is portrayed by Neeson’s son, Michael Richardson, but he’s killed off so quickly (the better to get the plot’s sadistic gears grinding) that any possible emotional resonance is blown away.

Laura Dern is completely wasted. She’s one of America’s finest actresses, as she’s recently proven in The Tale and Big Little Lies. The fact that there aren’t enough good roles for Dern that she’s relegated to this glorified walk-on as Neeson’s stricken wife is yet another sad, searing indictment of Hollywood’s mistreatment of women.

It may be the whitest movie ever made. Moland overdoes the color-scheme motif: the snow, cocaine, a boutique of white wedding dresses, a hotel with white fur all over the furniture, a white woman dressed in white with a little white dog. We get it! Cold Pursuit moves the action from Disappearance‘s Norway to Denver and changes the Serbian drug gang to Native Americans, but even the Chief is named White Bull (and played by Tom Jackson, with a shock of white hair). The only major African-American character is called the Eskimo (Arnold Pinnock). He pointedly pronounces “ask” as “ax” and explains his nickname by citing people from “the hood” who said any “n—–” who moves to Colorado must be an Eskimo — itself an offensive term.

It’s not just racist, it’s misogynistic and homophobic, too. There’s a grotesquely steretoyped Asian character (Elizabeth Thai) who flips off Neeson while filing her nails. She’s the wife of Neeson’s brother (William Forsythe), a former mobster who reveals he met her when he went to a massage parlor to beat her up and ended up marrying her. Women, you can’t live with ’em, amiright? Just how white is this movie? Moland cherrypicks two alums of The Wire‘s peerless, multi-racial ensemble… and they’re two white guys! John Doman is stranded in a stock role as a grizzled cop, and Domenick Lombardozzi plays a gay thug who, in one scene meant to be comically shocking, kisses another guy. I haven’t been this appalled since I read Kevin Hart’s old tweets.

It aims for black comedy and misses the mark by a mile. Disappearance‘s dark humor gets utterly lost in translation. Moland wants to make a blood-soaked, sub-zero crime farce like Fargo; he even miscasts William H. Macy’s Shameless co-star, Emmy Rossum, as a Marge Gunderson-esque policewoman. But he’s no Coen Brother, much less Tarantino. Cold Pursuit isn’t The Hateful Eight. It’s just plain hateful. And it left me in a cold rage that would chill even Liam Neeson to the bone.

A Star Bores and More: The Worst Films of 2018


Mercifully, I had trouble coming up with 10 solid candidates for a Worst Films of 2018 list. Maybe I’ve gotten better at sniffing out the stinkers and avoiding them before I waste my time seeing them (hello and goodbye, Mortal Engines and Welcome to Marwen!) But I managed to find a 10-pack of patience testers.

10. Mary Poppins Returns A spoonful of sugar? More like a spoonful of treacle! (Gluttons for punishment can click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.)

9. Holmes & Watson As another fake British duo — Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) — once said, it’s such a fine line between clever and stupid. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s brainless spoof of Sherlock and his sidekick tramples that line into dust.

8. Bel Canto Julianne Moore is less than meets the eye (and ears) as an opera singer — her voice was badly dubbed by Renee Fleming — who’s taken hostage in South America in director Chris Weitz’s deeply off-key adaptation of Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel. You’ll feel like you’re being held captive too.

7. What They Had Four fine actors — Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner and Robert Forster — are stranded in a mawkish family drama about dementia that was written and directed by another actor, Elizabeth Chomko, who should’ve never given up her day job. What they had is a cinematic turd.

6. Avengers: Infinity War It sure felt like infinity. I would rather pass a kidney stone than spend another two-and-a-half hours watching this brutally dull tale of Thanos’ quest for the five Infinity Stones. Or something.

5. Solo: A Star Wars Story The charmless Alden Ehrenreich, a.k.a. the even poorer man’s Hayden Christensen, can’t achieve liftoff in substitute director Ron Howard’s relentlessly brown snooze-apalooza. Even with the always-welcome presence of Chewbacca, it’s a Wookiee mistake.

4. A Star is Born “Five Reasons Why ‘A Star is Born’ Sucks” was by far my most popular — and divisive — post on my blog this year. The hardest part for me was limiting it to five reasons.

3. I Feel Pretty Someone smarter and more woke than me needs to write an essay about the spate of movies in which women suffer violent blows to the head and wake up to find their life has changed for the better: the upcoming What Women Want (with Taraji P. Henson) and Isn’t It Romantic? (with Rebel Wilson) and this tone-deaf Amy Schumer farce. It’s about as much fun as a concussion.

2. The Death of Stalin Or, as I like to call it, The Death of Comedy. The only film I walked out of this year, director Armando Iannucci’s Soviet satire is as slow and witless as his most famous former creation, Veep, is quick and sharp. I’d sooner spend time in a stalag than be forced to finish this joyless slog.

1. Red Sparrow From Russia with Hate: I’d be better off dead than watching Red again. I liked the tale of an Eastern European undercover operative who pretends to be attracted to powerful sleazebags better the first time when it was called The Melania Trump Story. SAD!

What were your least favorite films of 2018?

Virtue and Vice: The Best Films of 2018

2018 was a strange year in cinema: The best movies seemingly grouped themselves to represent several fascinating trends. Rather than compiling a traditional top-10 list, I’ve gathered my favorite films into a few categories, organized by theme — along with one delightfully unclassifiable anomaly.

Remarkable sequels. It’s the Godfather, Part II rule: sequels rarely surpass the original. Yet The Incredibles 2, Creed II and the criminally underrated The Equalizer 2 brought new depth to the characters while displaying the bravura filmmaking skills of directors Brad Bird, Steven Caple Jr. and Antoine Fuqua. I’d gladly line up for a third installment of each of these surprisingly robust franchises.

Exhilarating documentaries. The two previous words aren’t often grouped, but RBG, Itzhak and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? restored my faith in humanity with inspiring portraits of the deeply humane Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Itzhak Perlman and Mister Fred Rogers. Kudos to directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, Alison Chernick and Morgan Neville for proving protagonists don’t need to be dark to be profoundly compelling.

Independent spirits. Stories of rebels who refuse to conform to societal expectations provided some of the year’s best drama: Ethan Hawke as a tortured pastor in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed; Carey Mulligan as an unfaithful wife and mother in Paul Dano’s Wildlife; Robert Redford as an unrepentant bank robber in David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun; and Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as taboo-shattering Jewish women in Sebastián Leilo’s Disobedience thrilled me in wildly different ways.

Actress showcases. Ms. Mulligan, Weisz and McAdams weren’t the only female performers who blew me away in lead roles. Melissa McCarthy, Nicole Kidman and Kelly Macdonald brilliantly reinvented themselves as a misanthropic literary forger in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a haunted former undercover cop in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer; and a mousy housewife-turned-jigsaw genius in Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle, respectively. In each cases, all the pieces fit together perfectly.

Black power. The three greatest films I saw in 2018 dealt with race in bracingly head-on fashion. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You could hardly be more diverse tonally. Panther is a simply marvelous superhero movie. KkKlansman is a devastating social commentary hiding beneath the guise of a buddy-cop movie. Sorry is an audacious comedy with a truly radical soul. Each, in their own way, is genuinely revolutionary.

And then there’s Vice. Adam McKay’s hellzapoppin’ Dick Cheney biopic throws everything against the wall, and it nearly all sticks, from a profane opening disclaimer to fake-out end credits. Christian Bale’s transformative performance must be some kind of acting alchemy; he’s subsumed into the character. Somehow McKay and Bale convince us that this man of many heart attacks actually has a heart, then they break our hearts by showing us that he really doesn’t. It’s the very definition of a Dick pic.

What were your favorite films of 2018?

5 Reasons Mary Poppins Returns Doesn’t Fly


I wanted to like Mary Poppins Returns. I really did. I tried hard to enjoy it while I was watching it, and it was almost fun. But not quite. It was fun-adjacent. It’s not not fun. But it’s not fun. Why not? Let me count the reasons.

  1. The old people and the kids are great; everyone in between, not so much. The undeniable highlights of Mary Poppins Returns are the musical numbers featuring Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke. The problem is they only get one number each, and they all come relatively late in the two-hour-plus film. Julie Walters (as the Banks’ aging maid), David Warner (as their nutty neighbor) are good, but peripheral. The kids who play the three Banks children are all adorable; not great singers nor dancers, but adorable. That leaves everyone else, like…
  2. Emily Blunt is too blunt. She got the snippy part right but forgot the character’s charm (or maybe the script did). Granted, Julie Andrews leaves some big boots to fill, but Blunt lacks magic. She doesn’t enter the film soon enough, and when she does, she doesn’t really advance the plot. She does a few tricks here and there, but she’s mostly an observer. Yes, Mary Poppins Returns… but she doesn’t do much.
  3. Lin-Manuel Miranda is miscast. His British accent makes Dick Van Dyke’s legendarily awful Cockney brogue in the original sound like Sir Laurence Olivier. The songs, which are mostly forgettable, don’t suit his Hamiltonian vocal style either. And he has negative chemistry with Emily Mortimer as the grown Jane Banks.
  4. The plot doesn’t pay off. It’s a rather depressing story about financial anxiety: The grown Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw, trying his best) is about to lose his home to the bank. If I wanted to worry about the economy, I would’ve stayed home and watched CNN. And Colin Firth is so over-the-top as the evil banker, you feel sorry for his mustache because he twists it so much.
  5. It’s all too paint-by-numbers. You can hear the gears grinding as the Disney machine makes sure the sequel checks every box of beloved moments from the original. Animated/live action hybrid musical sequence? Check. (But it makes no sense.) Nonsense song, a la “Supercalifragilisticexpialodocious”? Check. (But it’s not catchy.) Mary Poppins even looks in the mirror at one point and pronounces herself “Practically perfect in every way.” Therein lies the problem: Mary Poppins Returns is imperfect in practically every way.

Oscar Front Runners Come to Virginia


It’s fitting that the 2018 Virginia Film Festival closed with The Front Runner, the Gary Hart biopic starring Hugh Jackman. Unlike in the past, when the fest mostly offered dark horses that came up short in the Oscar race (e.g. last year’s Downsizing and Hostiles), the VFF served up a number of leading Academy Awards contenders.

The opening-night attraction, Green Book, seems destined to earn Best Actor nods for Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. They’re note-perfect as Dr. Don Shirley, an African-American pianist, and Tony Lip, his Italian-American driver on a concert tour through the Deep South in 1962. It’s Driving Miss Daisy in reverse, and while it’s not the most sophisticated take on race in America, it’s hugely entertaining and could go a long way in the Best Picture category.  Peter Farrelly, best known for making lowbrow comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber with his brother Bobby, might win a spot in the Best Director ranks, although he’s less likely to take home the statuette than two other filmmakers whose new work was shown at VAFF.

One is Yorgos Lanthimos, whose period comedy The Favourite I reviewed favorably when it played at the New York Film Festival. The other is Roma, whose true star is director Alfonso Cuarón. The autobiographical drama is drawn on his memories of growing up in Mexico City in the early ’70s and being raised by a nanny (played here by Yalitza Aparicio, a lock for a Best Actress nom). Shot in gorgeous black-and-white and deliberately paced, it’s a film that grows on you gradually and builds to a powerful impact. It faces some challenges commercially — including the fact that it’s a foreign-language film and will open only in limited theaters before streaming on Netflix — but it figures to be a major player on Oscar night.

So, too, will be Willem Dafoe, whose performance as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate could bring him the Oscar he deserved last year for The Florida Project. Artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s film can be like watching paint dry at times, but Dafoe’s work is indelible. It even earned unmitigated praise from Christoph Waltz, who sat for a typically prickly but fascinating Q&A with Rain Man and Breaking Bad producer Mark Johnson, a UVA grad and the chairman of VAFF’s advisory board. Waltz amusingly refused to answer questions about what it felt like to win two Oscars, what it was like working with Quentin Tarantino on  Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, and why he’s so good at playing charming but evil villains.

VAFF also screened a number of high-quality documentaries, including Charlottesville, a devastating examination of the deadly violence that broke out during the alt-right’s rally in August 2017. It was all the more disturbing to view only blocks away from the location where the anti-white supremacist protestor Heather Heyer was killed. An enlightening look at the cultural forces that led to this tragedy was provided by Divide and Conquer: The Roger Ailes Story, Alexis Bloom’s film about the rise and fall of Fox News Channel founder Roger Ailes. He emerges as compelling and complicated of a character as I’ve seen in any scripted film this year.

I wasn’t able to stay long enough to see The Front Runner or If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight. But I left the 2018 Virginia Film Festival excited for next year’s Academy Awards — and VAFF.