Saturday, December 29, 2018

Nonsense and Sensibility: Mary Poppins Returns

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh and Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

Author P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins was tart, acerbic, dowdy and spindly, had a life of her own (her adventures with Bert in the chalk painting had no Banks children in tow), and thought a great deal of herself. Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins, in the 1964 Disney movie, was dowdy and pretty in a clean-scrubbed sort of way, looked in the mirror a lot, and didn’t seem to think of anything. It’s an Oscar-winning performance that really isn’t much of one. Time Magazine stated, “If she did nothing but stand there smiling for a few hours, she would cast her radiance. It would be enough.” Apparently, both Andrews and the Academy agreed. Her Oscar was also a reaction to her not getting on film a role she made famous on Broadway, which may be why the disheveled hat Andrews wears as Poppins bears more than passing resemblance to Eliza Doolittle’s flower girl get-up in My Fair Lady, and why the song David Tomlinson sings as Mr. Banks, "The Life I Lead," sounds suspiciously Henry Higgins-ish. To be fair, Andrews does seem to be having a lively time when she and Dick Van Dyke danced to “Supercalifragi . . . ” -- well, you know the rest. But in general, she's rather fuzzy where she needs to be crisp. There’s a lack of clear choices in her portrayal; she seems to be coasting. In contrast, Emily Blunt in the new sequel Mary Poppins Returns is witty, sharp-tongued, and game for anything. She adores nonsense, and loathes fools. Spectacularly dressed (by Sandy Powell), she looks great and knows it. With her ramrod posture, impeccable line readings, and great timing, as well as a wicked sense of fun, Blunt is sublime. She bridges the distance between Travers and Andrews with an interpretation all her own.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A Tale of One City: Widows

Jacki Weaver and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows.

A heist film is usually focused on the heist: who’s the mark, what’s the take, who brings what skills to the table, what goes wrong, and how do they get away with it? Steve McQueen’s Widows turns all of that on its head, giving us a heist film about a band of unskilled reluctant criminals stealing for someone else from a place they have to determine for themselves. The plan of this particular heist is pretty straightforward; it’s everything else that’s hard. And that “everything else” encompasses the very idea of the city of Chicago, where the movie is set.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Giant Missteps: Roma and If Beale Street Could Talk

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma.

During the credits of Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white memory picture about growing up in Mexico City in the early 1970s, an invisible hand splashes bucket after bucket of water on the tiles of a walled-in terrace attached to the home of a well-to-do family in a neighborhood known as Roma. After the second inundation, a rectangle of light, jagged at the top as if someone had carved a small hunk out of it, appears in the middle of the frame – presumably a piece of sky, as a tiny plane passes through it. It’s a remarkable shot, though Cuarón (who photographed the movie, as well as directing and writing and, with Adam Gough, co-editing it) never explains exactly what we’re seeing – is there a skylight up there? – and we can’t tell what it’s supposed to mean. This quote from the filmmaker from a Variety interview might help: “Borges talks about how memory is an opaque, shattered mirror, but I see it more as a crack in the wall. The crack is whatever pain happened in the past. We tend to put several coats of paint over it, trying to cover that crack. But it’s still there.” I said it might help: the liquid is water, not paint, and it reveals the crack rather than attempting to cover it up, and anyway whatever pain is associated with the past for Cuarón presumably resides inside that house, not in the sky above it. Anyway, why should we need to read an interview with him in order to guess how the hell we’re supposed to read this image, which he lingers on for the entire credits sequence? Sitting through Roma, we certainly know one thing: we’re supposed to believe we’re watching art. It’s meticulously made, without a single scene that feels like it wasn’t planned carefully beforehand. Man, what I wouldn’t have given for a spontaneous moment where you sense that one of the actors improvised a reaction and Cuarón kept it in the film because it surprised him or because he loved the performer. Roma doesn’t unfold, so we don’t get wrapped up in it; it presents itself to us and we’re there as witnesses to the artistry of its compositions. It’s deadly.