My Votes For The Best

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve watched the Oscars. I remember Bob Hope hosting, the infamous broadcast when the Oscars ran short – one of the most painful times in the history of live TV – and David Niven’s perfect response to an on-stage streaker. Yes, there are times it feels like a marathon – or worst, the “Is it safe” scene from Marathon Man. But I love movies, so I’ll deal with the pain. This year the broadcast goes without an emcee following Kevin Hart getting tweeted out of the gig. It will be interesting to see how the Academy handles it, but it could end up being a genius move. They could start the night off with a recap of the year in clips, then go straight into the awards. Considering how often the emcee has bombed, the lack of one may be a positive.

In preparation for the ceremony on February 24th, I’d like to share my picks for who will go home with Oscar. I won’t do all the categories – I’ll wait until that night to see who gets Best Costume – but I’ll cover the main categories. One caveat: I’ve never been great at predicting the winners, so my choices might be the kiss of death on the film’s chance of winning. Anyway, here goes:

Best Animated Feature

Ever since Belle danced with the Beast and opened the possibilities of computer animation in feature films, animation has been a major factor for the yearly box office. This year features two extremely well-received sequels to major hits that struck box office gold: Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks The Internet. Either one could have won this year, if not for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. It’s the best Spider-Man movie ever, and the animation is a wonder to behold.

Best Original Song and Score

You can put a check mark beside “Shallow” from A Star Is Born right now. It’s been a huge hit, and it creates an exclamation mark moment in the film when Lady Gaga’s vocal soars before belting out the chorus. The only song that might upset it is Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars” from Black Panther. However, I’ll go with Black Panther for the original score. Ludwig Goransson both captures the feel of Africa and delivers a thrilling signature theme that gets the blood pumping.

Best Cinematography

News came out a few days ago that the Academy had decided to drop this category from the live broadcast, along with Live Action Short, Film Editing, and Makeup/Hairstyling. For me, though, this is the premiere technical category, and should remain as a part of the show. The Cinematographer (also known as Director of Photography, even though they work primarily with lighting) is responsible for how the film looks on the screen, whether it’s shot in glorious black and white or in rich, bold colors. This year there are three international nominees, with Mexico’s Roma, Poland’s Cold War, and Germany’s Never Look Away. Director Alfonso Cuaron did his own cinematography for Roma, while Never Look Away boasts a Hollywood veteran, Caleb Deschanel (father to Zooey and Emily). Deschanel’s been nominated 5 times previously, including for The Right Stuff and The Natural, so he might be a sentimental favorite. But I’ll go out on a limb and pick Matthew Libatique for A Star Is Born.

Best Screenplays (Original and Adapted)

Since Cooper was shut out of the Best Director category (see below), I’d like A Star Is Born to win Best Adapted screenplay. Taking a property that’s already been filmed multiple times and making it fresh and vibrant is a major accomplishment. For Best Original, I’ll go with Green Book. Roma might sneak in a win here, but much of the movie was improvised, so taking this category seems a bit like cheating.

Best Supporting Actor

I’d love for Sam Elliott to win an Oscar after his long career, which started with his first film performance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But Mahershala Ali in Green Book is just too good. He’s riveting every second he’s on the screen as Dr. Don Shirley, and his interplay with Viggo Mortensen crackles like electricity in the atmosphere.

Best Supporting Actress

Two nominees from the same film tends to cancel each other out, so Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone would have to overcome that to win. Even so, I think Regina King should take home the gold for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk. It would be an underdog win, for while she won the Golden Globe in January, she was even nominated for the SAG awards.

Best Actor

This is a strong slate of nominees, all deserving of recognition, but Christian Bale’s embodiment of Dick Cheney in Vice is so perfect you think it’s Cheney on the screen. If not Bale, then Rami Malek has the strongest momentum, having already won at the Golden Globes (along with Bale), the BAFTAs, and the Screen Actors Guild. But for the Oscar my money’s on Bale.

Best Actress

If any category has a lock on it, it’s this one. Glenn Close is in Paul Newman territory with her 7th nomination and no wins, and she’s already picked up hardware at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild for her performance in The Wife. If there were an upset winner, I’d go with Olivia Coleman’s Queen Anne in The Favorite. And perhaps it isn’t good to compare Close to Newman. Remember, Newman’s 7th nod was for his fantastic performance in The Verdict, but at the ceremony he got beaten up by Gandhi.

Best Director

It’s unconscionable that Bradley Cooper was shut out of this category – A Star Is Born didn’t direct itself. Cuaron is the front runner for Roma, though he already has a statue for Gravity. Instead, I hope the Academy will honor not just a fine movie but an outstanding career and bestow the Best Director honors on Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman.

Best Picture

Each one of the eight nominated pictures this year is strong, so I won’t be upset with whoever wins. It would be marvelous for Black Panther to win, but that’s probably too far a step for the Academy voters. Still, Marvel can laugh all the way to the bank – a bank they could buy outright with the $1.3 billion worldwide gross of Black Panther. It’s hard for a foreign language film to take the top prize, since it has its own category. That’s likely where Roma will win, and it seems greedy for it to take home the main prize on top of that. Instead, I’ll go with Green Book, which is blessed with a sparkling script and two of the best performances of the year.

Please feel free to make your own prognostications in the comments. In a little over a week, we’ll see how the Academy has actually voted.

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Hot and Cold Running Thrillers

The past two weekends have seen the release of two thrillers that are opposites as far as the setting’s temperature, while each are different from the usual entries in this genre. In both cases, the trailers you may have seen are standard fare – what you’d expect for a thriller – but the movies themselves veer into far different territory.

Miss Bala

It’s rare for a thriller to pass the Bechdel Test, which asks if a movie has at least two female characters (best if they have names in the script) who have a conversation about something other than a man. It’s a simple way to judge the active presence of women in films. With the testosterone-heavy environment of thrillers, passing the Bechdel test is rare. One that does is Miss Bala.

The movie’s a remake of a 2011 Mexican film of the same name, structured as a starring vehicle for Gina Rodriguez (TV’s “Jane the Virgin”). She’d had supporting roles in both Deepwater Horizon and Annihilation, but with Miss Bala she gets the title role. Another difference – though it’s thankfully becoming less of a rarity – is that the director’s chair is occupied by a woman. Catherine Hardwicke worked for fifteen years as a production designer for movies like Tombstone, Three Kings, and Vanilla Sky. In 2003 she directed the excellent coming of age flick, Thirteen, and the seminal skateboard movie, Lords of Dogtown, before doing the first of the Twilight films.

Rodriguez plays Gloria, a makeup artist in Los Angeles. A US citizen, she’d lived in Tijuana with her family years earlier when her father ran a business there. Now she returns to help her best friend from that time, Suzu, (Cristina Rodlo) compete in a beauty contest. Their reconnection is cut short when the club they attend on night as part of the contest preliminaries is attacked by a gang wanting to kill the head of the state police. Suzu disappears after the melee, and Gloria is kidnapped by the gang. The charismatic gang leader promises to help Gloria find Suzu, but he needs something in return.

The best aspect of Miss Bala is how it turns on its ear the usual drug crime story trope where women are disposable decorations. Even as the men play that game, Gloria learns to handle herself. Overall, though – even as it twists your expectations – it still plays off of the usual plot so it doesn’t clear new ground. It’s serviceable, but Miss Bala isn’t the vehicle to launch Gina Rodriguez into full-blown movie stardom.

Cold Pursuit

2008’s Taken rewrote Liam Neeson’s career trajectory to include action hero with leading man. Movies like The Grey, Run All Night, Unknown and The A Team mix with films like Silence, Widows and A Monster Calls on his resumé. He’s also had a string of thrillers involving a mode of transportation like Non-Stop (planes) and The Commuter (trains), leading some to suggest wacky transport methods as the starting points for future Neeson flicks, such as having him be a Zamboni driver. Cold Pursuit comes close to fulfilling this suggestion, with Neeson driving a snowplow. But if Miss Bala turned a thriller trope on its ear, Cold Pursuit takes a wrecking ball to the genre by mixing it with black comedy.

Like Miss Bala, Cold Pursuit is a remake of a foreign film, 2014’s Norwegian picture Kraftidiotan, also known as In Order of Disappearance. This time, though, they also imported the director of the original film, Hans Petter Moland, to remake the film for English audiences. He brings a jaded European sensibility to the piece.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, who runs a snowplow business in a ski resort town high in the Rockies. His main job is to keep the highway into town clear during the winter when the snow is measured in feet. He and his wife, Grace (Laura Dern), have one son, Kyle (Michael Richardson, who is Neeson’s son in real life), a baggage handler at the town’s airport. In short order, Kyle and a co-worker are kidnapped by a couple of bad guys after they take a load of drugs. Kyle’s killed with a heroin overdose, his body disposed of in downtown Denver, but the co-worker escapes the drug gang long enough to tell Nels the truth about how Kyle died. The head drug distributor is an anal-retentive jerk known as Viking (Tom Bateman). Nels starts killing his way through the levels of the crime family, using techniques he’s learned from reading crime novels.

While the film has as high a body count as any regular thriller, it pushes the action into the bizarre – and shows a black title card with the character’s name after every death. The biggest weakness of the film, though, is that it switches focus from Neeson’s revenge about two/thirds of the way through to concentrate on a gang war between Viking’s crew and a Native American gang that controls the resort town’s drug trade, led by White Bull (Tom Jackson). Jackson’s excellent as the stoic White Bull, but the film misses the crackling charisma of Neeson until he returns for the climax.

While Dern is wasted in a brief role, the film features a couple gems of supporting performances. Emmy Rossum plays a gung-ho deputy who realizes her town’s in the middle of a gang war, and William Forsythe is Neeson’s brother who’d been involved in the Denver crime family before retiring when he got married.

Sometimes the tone of the film is tongue-in-cheek, while other times it’s like the director’s sticking his tongue out at you. But overall it makes for an entertaining film, and an antidote to what you normally get with thrillers.

Chemistry Lesson

Tracey and Hepburn, Astaire and Rogers, Newman and Redford, Hanks and Ryan: These were all pairings of fine actors in their own right, but when they were together they gave their films a spark that the audiences could feel. This year saw an inspired pairing that was unexpected as it was marvelous: Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in Green Book.

The movie tells the true story Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Ali). Tony worked security at the famous Copa nightclub in Manhattan – or, as he terms in in the film, “public relations.” That could mean breaking up a fight by beating up both participants and dragging them outside. While he comes into contact with organized crime figures, Tony steers clear of their offers of employment, even when the Copa closes for renovations for a couple of months.

It’s 1963, and overt racism is the cultural norm. When a couple black repairmen are sent out to help Tony’s wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), at their Bronx home, male relatives come by to chaperon until Tony wakes up after his long night at the club. Dolores gives the repairmen cold drinks when they finish. While she sees the men out Tony takes the two glasses the men used and puts them in the trash – only to have the practical Dolores rescue the glasses when she sees what Tony’s done.

A contact calls Tony with the offer of a job driving a doctor, but when he arrives to interview at the given address, he finds it’s Carnegie Hall. He’s directed to Shirley’s apartment above the concert hall. (Shirley has multiple doctorates, including in music and psychology, so the honorific is earned.) The contrast between the rough and tumble Tony and the refined and restrained Shirley couldn’t be greater. Shirley explains that he’s about to embark on a concert tour with his trio, playing classic jazz arrangements of popular music. The itinerary includes an extended time in the South, and he needs someone who can handle himself should trouble arise. Tony laughs. “You? In the South? There’s gonna be trouble.”

Director Peter Farrelly is known mostly for collaborating with his brother Bobby to write, direct, and produce comedies that often push the edge of taste and political correctness. The pair did both Dumb and Dumber movies plus Fever Pitch, Shallow Hal, and There’s Something About Mary, among others. This time Peter directs alone, working from a script he co-wrote with Brian Hayes Currie (who’s known more as a character actor; besides writing, he plays a Maryland State Trooper who shows up late in the film) and Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga. In Entertainment Weekly, Farrelly said when he first learned about the two men, he realized it was a love story. That comes through clearly in the script and in its transfer to the screen. These are two people from worlds that couldn’t be more different, yet over the course of their trip they come to appreciate the quality in each other and develop a deep platonic commitment.

Yet the story could have ended up as a poor imitation of “Driving Miss Daisy” except for the chemistry between Ali and Mortensen. Even with the simplest dialogue, the two actors fence with each other, shooting sparks of as steel strikes steel. And over the course of the film both men go through metamorphoses. With Mortensen’s Tony, it’s a filing down of his rough edges as he begins to see the world in a different way. For Ali, he takes the constrained Don Shirley and slowly peels away his layers until you see the heart of the man.

This is a time in this country when race relations are as strained as they’ve been, and while covert racism has remained since the ‘60s, it’s now rearing its overt face. The story of Green Book will always be topical, but in a real way it’s needed now. These are two very different men who don’t negate their differences in a sappy unrealistic moment, but who come to appreciate who each other is, and treasure their friendship. That message is needed today.

Not Yet Notorious

Biopics are best when they accomplish one of two things: 1) they feature an Oscar-caliber performance bringing to life a well-known character, or, 2) they tell a story that few people know. Recently musicians have given us some of the best biopics, with Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles (Ray), Joachim Phoenix’s Johnny Cash (Walk The Line), and this year’s nominee, Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody). You could also add in The Aviator (Leonardo di Caprio as Howard Hughes), The King’s Speech (Colin Firth as George VI), and Malcom X (Denzel Washington as…well, yeah). The second category often bleeds over into the first in regard to fine performances, but they’re embodiments of people most of us haven’t heard of before the movie came out. In this category you have movies like A Beautiful Mind, The Pianist, Schindler’s List, Catch Me If You Can, and The Imitation Game.

On the Basis of Sex comes close to reaching those heights in telling the story of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, but it is hampered by two factors. It only deals with two small portions of her life, and it came out after the excellent documentary RBG, which covers her whole life and has been nominated for two Oscars (Best Documentary and Best Original Song). Yet the movie does do a good job of telling a story that most people today don’t know – the legal web that kept women subservient to men. It wasn’t just a glass ceiling women faced in those days, but they were in effect encased in glass balls, completely controlled by men. Today people are unaware of those restrictions because of the effectiveness of RBG at eliminating the laws that allowed them to exist. Not many people can be said to have completely changed the world as they knew it. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of those people.

The movie focuses on two points in her life around 15 years apart. The first begins when Ruth (Felicity Jones) enters Harvard in the mid-1950s. While Harvard had been co-ed for almost a decade at that point, there were only a handful of women in the class, and they were usually viewed as having taken a spot from a deserving man. Ruth had the extra challenges that she was married, with her husband Martin (Arnie Hammer) a year ahead of her in Harvard, and they had their first child already, Jane. It’s not easy for Ruth, as the dean of the law school (Sam Waterston) and its professors (one played by Stephen Root) exhibit a deep chauvinism even as they congratulate themselves for having opened the doors to women.

Fast forward to the early 1970s. Ruth worked as a law professor at Rutgers since no New York firm would hire her, regardless of how ridiculously qualified she was. Martin, on the other hand, is a partner in a firm, specializing in tax law. Ruth must also deal with a teenaged Jane (Cailee Spaeny) who is deep in her rebellious years. She longs to be in court rather than the classroom, where she can affect the law she teaches. Then Martin brings her a tax case of an adult son who was denied a deduction on his taxes when he paid for nursing help for his invalid mother. If he’d been a woman, it would have been allowed, but the law didn’t recognize that a man would be the primary care giver for a parent. The man, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), was discriminated against on the basis of sex. Ruth and Martin prepare for a pro bono appeal of the case before the US Circuit Court in Denver, but they soon discover they’ll be coming up against forces they know well.

It helps the film that a trailblazer for gender equality is in the director’s chair. Mimi Leder was one of the rare women directors in the 1980s, starting first in TV helming episodes of LA Law, China Beach, and ER, among others. She was particularly known for her ability to handle action, like Kathryn Bigelow who began directing films concurrently with Leder. Leder also served as a producer for both China Beach and ER. She came to the attention of ER co-creator Stephen Spielberg, who picked her to direct the first movie from his new studio, Dreamworks – The Peacemaker, starring ER alum George Clooney and Nicole Kidman. (This was between Clooney’s career nadir Batman and Robin and his career making turn in Out of Sight; it’s an effective thriller that still shows up on cable regularly.) Leder followed it up the next year with Deep Impact which made it to sixth on the worldwide box office list with $350 million, even as the top spot was taken by the similarly-themed Armageddon. She stumbled with her next film, Pay It Forward, and returned to TV for a while, including directing one of the last episodes of ER and other projects before doing Shameless and also The Leftovers, which she executive produced.

Felicity Jones does well as Ruth, replacing her English accent with a flat, subtle New York one, and Hammer is fine as Martin, who supported his wife even as he faced health challenges. Unfortunately, a mutually supportive relationship doesn’t allow for much drama. That comes from Spaeny’s Jane – her interactions with her mother and others crackle, and she ends up becoming the vehicle through which the audience appreciates Ruth. The film also features Justin Theroux, who worked with Leder on The Leftovers, as the head of the New York office of the ACLU, and Kathy Bates in a small but memorable role as an early crusader for gender equality.

The early projection was this movie would garner Oscar noms, but it ended up being shut out. That, however, isn’t a reason to bypass it. It definitely tells a story that few people know unless they saw the RBG documentary, and it paints a clear picture of the need for 51% of the people in this world to be on the same footing as the other 49%. While some people want to go back to the attitudes of the 1950s, as if that’s some magic tonic for the United States, On the Basis of Sex shines a clear light on what that time was actually like. We still need to be reminded today.

They Live On

Too often if we think about the First World War, we view the participants as jerky, silent figures divorced from reality. Part of the reason is that’s how we’ve always seen them, in silent, black-and-white films that are scratched and faded, with strange movements as the film plays at a different speed than movies from even a few years later. Those were the days when film cameras were hand-cranked by the camera operator and could vary in how many frames/second were shot. The standard speed for the earliest motorized cameras was 16 frames/second but the hand-cranked could go down to 12 or 13, or up to 18 or 19. The sprockets in the film often deformed with age so the film jerked, and multiple printings left the footage either faded or so dark the footage looked black.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, the Imperial War Museum in London asked Peter Jackson, creator of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and one of the most technically-gifted directors of today, to make a documentary. They had no requirements other than using original footage, of which they had over 100 hours available. They’d also collected over 600 hours of interviews with veterans that could be used.

Trying to tell the whole story of the war, including the first extensive use of airplanes, the sea war with the U-boats, and the four years of battles, would have been impossible in a single documentary film. Instead Jackson chose to focus on the trench warfare of the Western Front with the British Imperial forces, to give the audience a feel for what the average soldier of any nationality went through. At the same time, he not only restored the footage in the film, he used all the technical skills available today – colorization, computerized focus on detail, dubbing sound, 3-D – to make the footage as perfect as if it were filmed using today’s cameras. The result is They Shall Not Grow Old, a tour de force of filmmaking.

At the beginning of the film, Jackson plays off of a technique used in The Wizard of Oz. While we hear soldiers describe how they learned the war had started, and the time from their enlistment to their arrival at the front, Jackson keeps the 4:3 aspect of film from those days, in black and white and with the jerky movements. But when the men reach the front, the film opens up to today’s standard screen ratio, the color appears, and the speed is corrected. It’s a stunning moment, drawing you back in time.

Throughout its 99 minute running time, there’s constant narration provided by snippets of conversation from thirty or forty soldiers who actually were there – all of whom would be dead by now. Many of them were under the legal age of nineteen required to volunteer. Some were as young as fifteen, but if they looked old enough the recruiting officials would turn a blind eye. Their matter-of-fact tone is endearing as they describe the first adjustments to Army life. As they come into battle, living in the trenches, the tone remains but conveys the inhuman conditions they faced – surviving a gas attack, artillery barrages, rats that infested the trenches and grew fat feeding off the dead.

Jackson went to incredible lengths to ensure the film’s veracity. To dub in when soldiers speak in the original footage, he used lip readers to decipher the words, then researched the uniforms to discover what area of England the soldier came from. He’d match actors from those areas with the soldiers so when they recorded the words, they did so with the proper accent. One clip had an officer reading from a piece of paper. Jackson and his team scoured the regimental archives until they found a statement from the time of the filming that, when read, matched the lip movement in the film. For the sounds of a bombardment, the recording technicians set up microphones where the New Zealand Army was doing live fire artillery practice, using guns of similar size to the WWI era weapons. When you hear shells whistle over you then explode on the screen, they were actual battle sounds.

Following the credits, Jackson has added a half-hour documentary on the making of the film. In it, he tells about one of his inspirations in making the film. His grandfather was a veteran who survived the full four years of the conflict. However, he’d been injured often and his health failed. By the time he died at age fifty, twenty years later, he was a bedridden invalid. Not all of the casualties of that war fell in battle.

While that generation has passed, the next generation who knew them the best, their sons and daughters, are now passing away themselves. This was a true world war, and if people look back they’ll likely find a relative who served. (For myself, I had a grand-uncle in the merchant marine during the war, dodging U-boats.) Film has been a way to bridge the gap of years. When Saving Private Ryan twenty years ago, it helped vets finally share with their families what they went through in battle, after decades of stoically remaining silent. With They Shall Not Grow Old, we discover the generation prior to the one we call The Greatest had their own amazing story. The story of those young men shouldn’t be lost to history.

Here in the United States, They Shall Not Grow Old is being released through Fathom Events, so it only shows up in theaters on certain days. I’d missed the two days it was shown in December, but then it came out on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and I got the chance to see it. If you get the chance, make sure you see this stunning film.

Something to See

2018 was a good year for the horror genre as filmmakers returned to thrilling moviegoers rather than simply grossing them out. The Halloween franchise essentially wiped away forty years of bad sequels and attempted reboots to remake the original John Carpenter thriller. The return-to-form racked up $250 million at the box office. John Krasinski made A Quiet Place, where making a simple sound was enough to set hearts beating loudly. It did even better at the box office, braking through $300 million worldwide. Then late in the year Netflix released Bird Box. While it has had a theatrical run, its main platform is the streaming service, where it has been viewed 45 million times. If that many viewings were translated into tickets sold, its gross would be around $400 million.

While Bird Box seems to have at least a spiritual thread with A Quiet Place – sight rather than sound – it’s actually based on a 2014 novel. The adaptation was done by Eric Heisserer, who’d cut his teeth on horror genre films when he started out before doing the screenplay for Arrival, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Susanne Bier took on the directing duties; she did the outstanding miniseries adaptation of John LeCarre’s “The Night Manager” two years ago.

Set in the Pacific Northwest, the movie pursues two story tracks 5 years apart. It begins in the later time, with a voice speaking over a radio: “We have a place, a compound. We have a community. It’s safe here. How many of you are there? Are any of them children? Because, the fastest way to get here is by the river, and I don’t think you could make it with kids.” But the warning about the river is ignored, underlining the desperate conditions facing Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and two young children, known only as Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair). As she prepares them for a rowboat trip down the river, she harshly tells them that they can’t remove their blindfolds.

The story then jumps back five years as the pregnant Malorie, who works as an artist, prepares for a prenatal appointment, accompanied by her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson). On the television is a report of strange outbreaks of mass suicide in Siberia, moving towards Europe, but they mute the sound before seeing that the happenings have also jumped to North America. As they enter the hospital, they see a young woman talking on her cell phone in a glassed-in walkway. When they exit, the woman is beating her face against the glass. Everything rapidly goes crazy, with people seeing “something” so shocking they’re compelled to immediately commit suicide. Jessica sees it and crashes the car. Malorie manages to make it into a nearby house that becomes a refuge for the home owner (John Malkovich), a veteran (Trevante Rhodes), an architect (BD Wong), and several others, including another pregnant woman.

The action flips back and forth between the house, with the disparate group fighting for survival, and the trip down the river five years later. As if whatever is causing people to commit suicide isn’t frightening enough, not everyone reacts that way. Some become proselytizers, forcing those who have survived to look and die. The audience, however, never gets to see what’s causing the mass hysteria. Bier and Heisserer know that the unknown and unseen is much more frightening. All we get to see are the reactions of those who do see, who go into a sort of trance as their eyes change color, and then they find someway to kill themselves.

Bullock’s Malorie is another sharp characterization added to her resumé of fine performances. She has the grit to do whatever is necessary to survive, but as she travels downstream with the children, she morphs into being their mother. A mother bear, to be sure, ready to fight for her children’s survival, but a mother none the less.

Bier’s direction is tightly focused so the film’s two-hour run time flies by. One set piece in particular has had unintended consequences. The group in the house has few supplies, but one of them worked as a security guard at a grocery store a few blocks away. When things went crazy, he’d locked the store and left. The group paints over the windows of an SUV in the garage then uses the vehicle’s GPS and proximity warning feature to slowly make their way to the store. Now some reality-challenged people have tried to redo the trick, driving blind. You’d think by now filmmakers wouldn’t have to slap a “Don’t Try This at Home” warning at the beginning of the film to prevent such stupidity.

Or maybe the warning should be, “You only get to drive like this during an actual apocalypse.”

Possibly Impossible

When Mary Poppins was released 55 years ago, it was both a cultural and a box office phenomenon. Blessed with a score filled with memorable songs – “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Supercalifragiliousexpialidotious,” “Once in Love with Mary,” and more – and a delightfully whimsical story, it won five Oscars, including a satisfying Best Actress win for Julie Andrews over Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, the role Andrews originated on Broadway. At the box office, it made over a hundred million dollars at a time when tickets were less than a dollar each. Given the number of tickets sold – over 110 million – it would have made nearly a billion dollars with the average cost of a ticket today. (My Fair Lady lagged $30 million behind Poppins in its box office that year.) Poppins was by far the most successful movie of Walt Disney’s career.

Mary’s creator, P.L. Travers, wrote several books in the series, so the idea of a sequel on the screen isn’t outlandish, but given the beloved status of the original, it’s an assignment fraught with pitfalls from the outset. It’s as likely to succeed as adding an extension onto the Taj Mahal or a 5th movement to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. That said, Mary Poppins Returns comes decently close.

It helps that Rob Marshall is the rare director active these days who has successfully pulled off a Hollywood musical, with his production of Chicago. His other venture into the genre, Into The Woods, was less successful, but then the source material was essentially a poison apple aimed at deconstructing the genre. The downside with Mary Poppins Returns is that he appears constrained by the structure of the original, though he manages to push its walls out a bit.

Part of the push comes from his lead actress. Emily Blunt was a brilliant choice to play Mary, and it likely helped that she and Marshall had already worked together on Woods. Rather than go to the original movie for the character, Blunt went back to the books. The Mary in the books is a sharper, edgier character, and Blunt carries off the role with an imperiousness that infuses energy into the movie.

She’s ably assisted by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the biggest Broadway star at this moment thanks to his mega-hit “Hamilton.” Miranda plays Jack, a lamplighter in Depression-era London who’d been a boy when Mary Poppins first appeared at the Banks house decades earlier. He’s retained his child-like sense of wonder and optimism, which makes him a perfect accomplice tor Mary.

The children from the original movie, Michael and Jane Banks (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer) are now grown. Michael lives in the original Banks house with his three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) and the housekeeper, Ellen (Julie Waters). They’ve had a hard time since Michael’s wife passed away the previous year, and he’d taken out a loan from the bank where his father worked (and where he works part-time) to manage. Now the loan’s due for repayment in full, and unless they can find a way to pay it off, they’ll lose the house. Into the chaos of their lives comes Mary Poppins once again, this time riding on the tail of a kite out of the clouds.

For the animated sequences, Marshall kept the 2D style of the first movie, and even has the penguins make a cameo appearance. Technology has progressed so much in the past five decades that the animation is far beyond the original with the incorporation of live-action characters, and these sequences are where Mary Poppins Returns truly outshines the original. Also, the dance choreography is far more involved that the original, especially a lamp lighter sequence – the spirit child of the chimney sweep dance – that utilizes bicycles and ladders.

Overall the cast is stellar. Colin Firth plays the bank manager Wilkins, a wolf in sheepish clothing, and David Warner takes over the role of the admiral next door. Chris O’Dowd lends his voice to a character while Angela Lansbury shows up near the end. Meryl Streep’s appearance as Mary’s Cousin Topsy feels strained and awkward, like they got her for the movie but then had to figure out some way to use her. Better is Dick Van Dyke’s return in a role he (sort of) did in the original, the elderly head of the bank. Less makeup was needed this time, but he can still cut the rug even in his 90s. There’s also a cameo (as an Elegant Woman) by Karen Dotrice, who originated the role of Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. Sadly, Matthew Garber, who played Michael, died from pancreatitis at age 22 in 1977.

The biggest hamstring to the production, though, is the music, and for a musical that’s a critical problem. Veteran composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman have created a score and songs that could be outtakes from the original film, and in the context of the scenes they’re okay. But you won’t be singing any of them when you leave the theater. They’re not memorable, or even catchy.

Another challenge with revisiting Mary Poppins is Saving Mr. Banks, the 2013 Emma Thompson/Tom Hanks flick that looked both at the creation of the original movie as well as the family tragedy that led P.L. Travers to create Mary Poppins in the first place. If I may be permitted to mix in another childhood classic, once you’ve looked behind the curtain, it’s hare to believe in wizardry anymore.

Overall Mary Poppins Returns is an enjoyable movie, but the possibility of recapturing the wonder of the original is in the end impossible.