‘Shazam!’ Film Review: DC Comics Gets a Bouncy Burst of Big-Screen Ebullience

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If the “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” movies represented DC Comics’ first big-screen steps away from the austere color palette of the Zach Snyder movies, “Shazam!” takes us deeply into primary colors in a single bound. There’s still a touch of urban decay and kitchen-table warmth on display — this is by no means Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” or a candy-colored Cartoon Network production — but this new DC entry has a lovely lightness, both in the visuals and in its tone.

Before the 1940s serials and the 1970s Saturday-morning TV show, “Shazam!” was born in a magazine called Whiz Comics, published by Fawcett and later acquired by the company that would be known as DC Comics. (Of course, the character used to be called Captain Marvel, but that’s a long story.) And to use a 1940s expression, there’s a gee-whiz ebullience to the movie that makes it stand out among the last several decades’ worth of caped crusaders.

Young Billy Batson (Asher Angel, “Andi Mack”) has spent most of his childhood escaping foster homes in the hopes of finding his mother (Caroline Palmer); as a 4-year-old, Billy got lost at a carnival and never found her again, although he’s sure she’s still looking for him. So when a new set of foster parents take him in, he’s got one eye on the door, even though everyone seems really nice, particularly Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, “It”), a Superman fan who’s never without a quip or the crutch that helps him walk. (“You look at me and you think, ‘Why so dark? Disabled foster kid, you got it all.’”)

Watch Video: ‘Shazam!’ Trailer: Zachary Levi Leaps Tall Buildings in a Single Bound – Almost

Everything changes when the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) summons Billy and gives him the power to transform into a superhero who will protect Earth against the Seven Deadly Sins. When Billy says, “Shazam!” he is transformed by a bolt of lightning, magically imbued with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. And while Billy and Freddy try to figure out how these powers work — even when he changes from little kid into strapping Zachary Levi, the new Shazam is still immature Billy inside, wisdom of Solomon or no — Shazam’s appearance stokes the fury of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).

Sivana, as a young boy, was himself summoned by Shazam to the Rock of Eternity before the wizard rejected him as unworthy, leading Sivana to spend his life trying to return. Over the years, Sivana realizes that Shazam turned away hundreds of candidates, only finally selecting Billy out of desperation. But since Sivana is greedy and venal, and burdened with daddy issues of his own, he’s easy pickings for those Seven Deadly Sins, who possess him and force him to do their bidding.

Confronted by Sivana, who wants the Shazam powers for himself, Billy/Shazam’s first instinct is to hide and run away. But when Sivana comes after his new foster family, will Billy figure out how to be a hero and also how to depend on others for love and support? The answer to these questions won’t shock you, but “Shazam!” does offer some surprises along the way. Critics on Twitter have compared this movie to both “Shoplifters” and “Meet the Robinsons,” and they aren’t wrong. The way that Billy resolves his own issues regarding family as well as the larger crisis of the end of the world makes sense in the context of the script (by Henry Gayden, “Earth to Echo,” from a story by Gayden and Darren Lemke, “Goosebumps”) while also honoring the original comics by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, who very quickly gave Billy a cadre of co-heroes known as the Marvel Family.

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Fans of those comics might not recognize this Sivana, much taller and more handsome than the creepy mad scientist of the original, and even though “Shazam!” doesn’t give us any talking tigers, there are some hints that one of the series’ most ridiculous yet most beloved villains will be popping up in future installments. (As always for movies like this, it’s a good idea to stay through the credits.) What’s most important is that the movie does capture the original comics’ combination of breezy heroism and nutty plotting, transferred from the 1940s to the modern era with great skill.

An old hand at horror, director David F. Sandberg (“Annabelle: Creation,” “Lights Out”) does throw in a few scenes that are too dark for the otherwise amiable tone of “Shazam!” And when we finally see the Seven Deadly Sins, they look like the kind of bargain-basement CG creatures that you get when a game on your phone shows you an ad for a different game that you would never want to play. But neither of these problems inflicts much damage. The cast is consistently sharp, with Grazer in particular managing great chemistry with both versions of Billy. Levi’s body language is constantly inventive, as he plays a tween who still isn’t used to a grown man’s body, let alone a superhero’s. (And yes, Gayden even throws in a gag to acknowledge the fact that we’re all thinking about “Big.”)

Also Read: Why Warner Bros.’ Big Change Won’t Disrupt the DC Universe

It’s worth highlighting Leah Butler’s costume design; her Shazam costume is great — on paper, the character had one of the weirdest capes in all the comics, but she’s managed to turn it into something more along the lines of a hoodie — while the family of foster kids all wear outfits that convey distinct personalities but still look appropriately like they’ve been curated with love and care at a Goodwill.

One of the delights of DC Comics over the years is that the unlikeliest characters can bump up against each other; you can stick Batman on the same page with The Phantom Stranger, Amethyst of Gemworld, the Doom Patrol and Rip Hunter, Time Master, and somehow they all fit. As the company’s films move in the same direction, it will be interesting to see how well “Shazam!” will play with his super-peers.



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‘A Madea Family Funeral’ Film Review: Tyler Perry’s Leading Lady Single-Handedly Resuscitates Moribund Comedy

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

If writer-director-star Tyler Perry makes good on his threat to make “A Madea Family Funeral” the final film featuring his larger-than-life comedic heroine, then Madea will going out with a whimper and not with a bang, even by Perry standards.

When Madea and Uncle Joe (both played by Perry) and their friends Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) and Hattie (Patrice Lovely) aren’t on screen to harass each other or the younger characters who so clearly need Madea’s wisdom and toughlove, the proceedings grind to a painful halt. And even when that quartet is around, the movie lumbers from one people-in-a-circle-sitting-around-talking scene to the next one. This is Perry’s 21st feature film, and 10th Madea vehicle, and his idea of directing still seems rooted in community theater.

We open on a houseful of characters we’ve never seen before and will only barely get to know, planning a 40th anniversary party for their parents Vianne (Jen Harper, “Greenleaf”) and Anthony (Derek Morgan, “Joan of Arcadia”). Traveling to the party are Madea, Joe, Bam and Hattie, driven by Joe’s upright-attorney son Brian (Perry again, sans latex).

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As the out-of-towners arrive at their hotel, they discover that Anthony has had a heart attack while having sex with family friend Renee (Quin Walters, “The Haves and the Have Nots”), which puts a crimp in the anniversary party plans but does allow them all to be around for the impending funeral.

Whether or not Vianne will learn the circumstances of her husband’s death, and what the repercussions will be about Vianne’s older son sleeping with his younger brother’s fiancée, is about all the plot that the movie can muster. But the real draw is Madea, of course, and she gets to be unleashed onto both a family of two-timers and hypocrites and the black funeral itself, a ritual that the movie parodies as overdone and taxingly long.

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Perry is clearly having a blast in all that effects makeup: “A Madea Family Funeral” gives him a third older character to play, a leg-less lech named Heathrow who speaks through an electrolarynx; the (often improvised) scenes involving this trio give the film genuine comic spark and energy. And while Perry’s Brian character is a perpetual straight man, the movie finally finds something funny for him to do in a traffic-stop scene in which he insists on compliance while his elders show justifiable concern about dealing with the police.

But when we’re left with the grieving family and their sexual secrets, the movie has the dramatic and visual flatness of a TV soap opera. Director of Photography Richard Vialet appears to have created the first feature film with motion smoothing, and the rest of the cast makes little impact, except for Davis, who’s always game to yes-and Madea, and Harper, who gets a third-act monologue that demonstrates what this movie might have been had Perry not been phoning it in as a screenwriter.

Also Read: Will ‘A Madea Family Funeral’ Bury Tyler Perry’s Franchise at the Box Office?

Anyone who’s ever seen a Perry play on stage will recognize the film’s climax, in which the characters all sit around (once again, in a circle of couches) while Madea delivers life advice and homilies, a cue for the audience to gather their coats and purses and get ready to go home.

In films like “Vice” and “Gone Girl,” Perry has shown himself to be an exceedingly capable character actor in other directors’ movies. One can only imagine the heights he could reach with his single greatest creation, Madea, if he were to allow someone else to write and direct a comedy for her. “A Madea Family Funeral” is being touted as her last on-screen outing, but since that’s not her in the casket, hope springs eternal.



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‘Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins’ Film Review: Vital, Hilarious Texas Pundit Remembered in Vivacious Documentary

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Columnist, humorist and author Molly Ivins died in 2007, but the new documentary “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins” reminds us that her particular brand of perspicacity is as vital and as necessary now as it was when she covered the 1968 Democratic Convention or watched George W. Bush rocket from the Texas governor’s mansion to the White House.

Her trenchant observations about corrupt, lazy or flat-out stupid politicians was must reading then, and timeless in our current era. When one of the film’s many interview clips has her noting that the political spectrum in this country doesn’t run left to right, but rather top to bottom, it’s as relevant as anything in tomorrow’s newspaper.

Newspapers, incidentally, play a significant role in Ivins’ life story, as it’s told by director Janice Engel, making her theatrical feature debut. We follow the writer from gawky adolescent (she was six feet tall at the age of 12) in Houston and her collegiate travels to France before a whirlwind career. At the Minneapolis Tribune, her imposing stature allowed her to be the paper’s first female crime-beat reporter, and her coverage of police brutality made the local cops name their mascot, a pig, after her.

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From there she was off to the Texas Observer, a rare liberal publication in the Lone Star State in the 1970s, and then The New York Times, which hired her for her singularly florid prose and then constantly tamped it down to fit Old Grey Lady style.

Her career really took off when she was given complete editorial freedom at the Dallas Times Herald. (Full disclosure: My first real newspaper job was at this now-shuttered publication; I once sent Ivins an intra-office fan memo.)

Her witty take-downs of the Texas legislature reached a national audience via syndication and several best-selling collections of her columns. And the timing gave her a front-row seat for the rise of W, who became the subject of two books she wrote with Lou Dubose, “Shrub” and “Bushwhacked.” (Having witnessed Bush in action for years, Ivins was less inclined than most to buy into his rosy descriptions of the Iraq War and its aftermath.)

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But “Raise Hell” isn’t just about the work, as great as the work was. Friends and family paint a fairly rich portrait of an intelligent and occasionally conflicted woman with a strong will and even stronger sense of humor. Later in her life, she would battle both alcoholism and breast cancer, and she would occasionally be let down by the rare politicians she respected.

(Always a defender of society’s most vulnerable, Ivins took Bill Clinton’s welfare reform as a deeply painful betrayal.)

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Engel’s subjects reminisce frankly about Ivins — this is a celebration but never a hagiography — and the requisite big names contribute interesting analysis regarding the writer as a Texan (Cecile Richards), a media powerhouse (Rachel Maddow) and both (Dan Rather). Formally speaking, the film isn’t breaking much new ground; the period-setting pop music and montage-friendly stock footage appear pretty much exactly where you’d expect. But Ivins herself was such a great raconteur, engaging speaker and drily witty interviewee that the plethora of old TV clips are themselves reason enough for the film to exist.

As even web outlets find themselves bleeding staff, and journalism becomes an increasingly precarious commodity, “Raise Hell” reminds us of the never-ending importance of those skilled observers with the ability to speak truth to power. And if, like Ivins, they can make us laugh while doing so, then they’re all the more essential.



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‘Cold Pursuit’ Film Review: Liam Neeson Plows Through an Action-Comedy With ‘Fargo’ on Its Mind

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Snowplows were intended to travel in only one direction at a time, but the makers of “Cold Pursuit” have bigger intentions in mind, attempting to meld intense action and dark comedy with a distinct Coen Brothers flavor. If the cold weather and heavy machinery weren’t enough to bring “Fargo” to mind, one of this movie’s many over-the-top deaths involves a snowblower doing to someone what a woodchipper did in that earlier film.

And while director Hans Petter Moland’s remake of his own film “In Order of Disappearance” (Frank Baldwin adapts the original screenplay by Kim Fupz Aakeson) may fall short of its goals, it’s hard not to admire the film’s ambitions — and certain scenes, performances and even one-liners — even as its flaws start piling up.

The setup for the plot feels like any number of Liam Neeson mad-dad-vengeance-dad thrillers of recent years; this time, the “Taken” star drives a snowplow for the ski community of Kehoe, Colorado, which has just honored him as Citizen of the Year for his street-clearing services. (And if this premise reminds you of the “Mr. Plow” episode of “The Simpsons,” you are not a special snowflake.) When his son, a baggage handler at the local airport, is murdered by a drug dealer (for reasons explained in a single rushed, mumbled line of exposition), Neeson’s character starts working his way up the ladder, from flunky to kingpin, to get revenge.

Watch Video: Liam Neeson Is Mr. Plow With a Vengeance in ‘Cold Pursuit’ First Trailer

Neeson’s character, incidentally, is named “Nels Coxman,” and several other characters in the film think his last name is just hilarious. And since both humor and a large ensemble have both been missing elements in most of the Neeson omertà sagas, “Cold Pursuit” immediately stands out as a departure. As Coxman begins his killing spree — and each casualty gets a full-screen “in memoriam” card after his or her death — the scope of the story expands outward to include a local cop (Emmy Rossum), yuppie drug boss Viking (Tom Bateman, Amazon’s “Vanity Fair”), Viking’s various underlings, and a rival gang of Native American drug dealers led by White Bull (Tom Jackson).

With such a crowded dramatis personae, it’s no wonder that Laura Dern, as Nels’ wife, gets almost nothing to do before she disappears from the film altogether. Overall, the film’s female characters are severely underwritten, with Nels’ sister-in-law presented as a particularly egregious Asian caricature. Only Rossum’s ambitious policewoman and Julia Jones as Viking’s ex-wife — the only person who can stand up to this slick-haired creep — get the chance to play with the boys on equal footing.

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Both the action and the comic elements in “Cold Pursuit” work reasonably well. Neeson can do justifiable homicide in his sleep by this point, but it’s still fun to watch him dispatch goons and scumbags. And most of the film’s gags land, particularly Viking’s helicopter-parent preoccupation with his son’s diet and the pokes at proper language when referring to indigenous peoples.

It’s the combo of dark humor and violence where the movie never quite reaches a balance. To be too jokey removes the stakes of the killings, and to be too grotesquely violent makes the laughs catch in the throat. This isn’t an impossible mix, as the Coens and other filmmakers have proven over the years, but Moland and Baldwin fall a bit short.

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Still, the director and cinematographer Philip Øgaard, who collaborated on “In Order of Disappearance,” make the most of their Canadian locations, presenting the sheer masses of snow on the roads and on the mountains as both beautiful and terrifying. And even if it’s a cliché at this point that the bad guy always lives in a Modernist house, the locations department found a doozy for Viking’s lair, boasting not only glass walls but also that curvy design that features no right angles whatsoever.

“Cold Pursuit” won’t end Liam Neeson’s reign of first-quarter action epics, even if it’s not among his best. But ultimately, this might be a film best enjoyed as a series of discrete clips on YouTube, where the thrills and the humor can exist separate from one another.



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A Commitment Fulfilled: TheWrap Achieves Gender Equity Among Its Film Critics

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

In November at our inaugural Power Women Summit, TheWrap committed to bringing gender balance to our team of film critics.

At the time, I said that we wanted to make sure we walked the walk and set an example by our own actions. We all know that having different a diverse set of views among writers creates a smarter, richer context for the discussion around our popular culture. (More info on that event here.)

For that reason I’m pleased to announce that we have achieved that commitment, and that TheWrap now has an equal number of women as men critics.

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Sharon Waxman committing to gender equity at the Power Women Summit 2018 / Photo by Randy Shropshire

We have added to our esteemed group of writers Yolanda Machado, Candice Frederick and Monica Castillo, who join a wonderful group of independent-minded thinkers reviewing films for the site.

TheWrap’s reviews editor Alonso Duralde enthusiastically took on this commitment and it is thanks to his leadership that we can be proud to have a greater mix of perspectives on the films and shows we review.

Here is a list of our pool of critics, and our thanks go out to each of them for their strong work, which you can read here:

Robert Abele

Carlos Aguilar

William Bibbiani

Dan Callahan

Monica Castillo

Candice Frederick

Todd Gilchrist

Courtney Howard

Yolanda Machado

Tricia Olszewski

Elizabeth Weitzman

Dave White

April Wolfe

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In her recent review of “Bird Box” starring Sandra Bullock, Yolanda Machado wrote:

“For generations, the picture of motherhood has been that of a woman who connects with her child immediately, who is openly loving and soft. Motherhood today is not as simple. There are real dangers that our children face daily, simply by walking outside. There’s no new handbook to teach us how to prep our kids in case their school is taken over by a shooter, nor is there a guide on how to lead our children when we ourselves are uncertain of what the future holds. We’re all fumbling into this new parenthood blindly, hoping that we’re raising smart and strong kids while also allowing them to experience the joys of childhood, and it’s that innate understanding of parenthood that makes Bullock’s performance feel real. It’s equally fascinating and terrifying to watch.”

In her review of “Destroyer,” by director Karyn Kusama, April Wolfe wrote: 

“But despite the film’s needlessly fractured structure and a relentlessly grim story, Kidman and Kusama seem to be speaking the same language, in quieter moments illuminating not just the faults of the protagonist but also the faults of every tragic hard-boiled detective in cinematic history.”

And in her review of “Vice,” Candice Frederick recently wrote:

“If there’s one thing writer-director Adam McKay’s “Vice” does well, it’s highlight how white mediocrity has thrived in American politics and pop culture. But McKay also does this by way of making a mediocre movie about mediocre politician Dick Cheney played by a surprisingly mediocre Christian Bale. At some point, and at some level, you wish the white mediocrity could be reined in, but it never is.”

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The voices and views of TheWrap’s critics matter a great deal as we are among a handful of publications that see films at their very earliest screenings, and are the first reviews to be published.

As a company, we are already at gender equity as a whole, not such a surprise given that it was founded by a woman. But still, we love having all the smart men on our staff – along with the talented women.

We invite our colleagues in the industry — Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and others — to make gender equity a priority among their critics as well, and together we will have a chorus of diversity among those who set the tone for our discussion of film.

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‘Holmes & Watson’ Film Review: Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly Stagger Through Stultifying Sherlockian Spoof

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Coroners of comic failure will find much to uncover in the corpse of “Holmes & Watson,” a thoroughly tedious and never-amusing spoof of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.

Does the fault lie in the fact that current iterations of Holmes — the Benedict Cumberbatch BBC series, the Guy Ritchie movies, even CBS’ “Elementary” — aren’t all that faithful to the material, so satirizing it seems irrelevant? Could it be that the script by director Etan Cohen (“Get Hard”) never had a second draft? Or did Cohen not worry that everything on the page was not particularly funny because stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly would somehow will this painful material into amusement merely by showing up on set?

The results are singularly awful, but there are three people who can emerge unscathed from this fiasco: Rebecca Hall, who elicits mild chuckles (the closest this film gets to laughter) as an American doctor who thinks 19th century medicine is as modern as science gets; costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor (“The Brothers Bloom”), who brings color and wit to her period creations; and the marketing person at Sony who didn’t pre-screen the film for critics, thus quashing advance word and ensuring it would be seen too late to make the deadline for most Worst of the Year lists.

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What plot there is revolves around Sherlock Holmes (Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (Reilly) trying to stop a nefarious scheme by Professor Moriarity (Ralph Fiennes) to murder Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris, “Call the Midwife”). Watson falls for Dr. Grace Hart (Hall), who pushes him to have Holmes treat him like a co-detective and not merely a sidekick, while Holmes is smitten by Millie (Lauren Lapkus), who has apparently been raised by feral cats. And that’s about it.

Granted, the story should, under better circumstances, exist merely as the hat rack upon which jokes hang, but there’s nary a laugh to be found here. Most of the stabs at humor revolve around anachronism (Watson puts “Unchained Melody” on a Victrola, and he and Hart have “Ghost”-style romantic interplay while conducting an autopsy), physical bits (our heroes knock Victoria about like Frank Drebin tackling Elizabeth II in “The Naked Gun”) or Holmes’ arrogance, and none of them land.

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I found myself watching moments like, say, Holmes and Watson traveling to a rough part of London, where streetwalkers beat and rob their carriage driver as they walk away obliviously, and thinking, “Okay, that’s a funny idea. But I’m not laughing.”

A stellar supporting cast is put to waste here, if not downright desecrated; besides Fiennes, we get appearances from Steve Coogan, Kelly Macdonald, Rob Brydon and Hugh Laurie, all of whom were, one hopes, well compensated for adding this embarrassment to their résumés. (Laurie, it should be noted, plays Mycroft Holmes, a role that previously allowed his onetime comedy partner Stephen Fry to steal “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” out from under Robert Downey, Jr. Laurie neither takes nor is given a similar opportunity in this film.)

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Ferrell continues to wander further away from his best moments as a screen actor — and it’s his own fault for reteaming with the guy who made “Get Hard” — and Reilly’s overall lack of subtlety is particularly crushing, given that this year has seen him give two of his finest performances, in “The Sisters Brothers” and “Stan and Ollie.”

“Stan and Ollie” is a movie about a comedy duo that has seen better days, while “Holmes & Watson” merely stars one.



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‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Film Review: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda Languish in the Shadow of Giants

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Once Disney decided to make a movie called “Mary Poppins Returns,” it automatically placed the film’s creators into something of a no-win situation: A sequel to the beloved, successful 1964 musical couldn’t stray too far from the previous movie lest it alienate fans, but for it to be too similar to its predecessor would call into question the point of making such a long-delayed follow-up in the first place.

It’s possible that there’s a filmmaker out there who could have threaded that particular needle in a way that would integrate the familiar into something new — the way J.J. Abrams did with the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, for instance — but director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee (“Life of Pi”) have taken the lane of least resistance and given us a clone that’s practically “Poppins” (1964) in every way.

The original film has a song about kites, so this one has a song about balloons. The male lead in 1964 was one of a cadre of dancing chimney-sweeps, and in 2018, we get light-on-their-feet lamplighters. Original “Mary Poppins” had its characters leap into an animated segment inside a sidewalk chalk drawing; “Mary Poppins Returns” has them enter the painted design on a porcelain bowl. And so on, and so on, until it appears that every single moment from the first movie will have some sort of correlative in the second.

Watch Video: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Trailer: Emily Blunt Sings and Dick Van Dyke Dances

Granted, if you’re looking to an existing film to provide a blueprint for a new one, there are worse places to start than “Mary Poppins.” And while performers Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman aren’t going to make anyone forget Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and the Sherman Brothers, respectively, the new crew gives it their all to make this overly familiar retread go down in as delightful a way as they can.

We open in the 1930s, where the Depression (or “Great Slump,” as a title card calls it) is putting a financial pinch on Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer); Jane has moved back into the family homestead on Cherry Tree Lane to help Michael, following the death of his beloved wife. He has had to put his painting aside, taking a job at the bank that once employed his father, to feed his own three urchins, Annabel (Pixie Davies, “Humans”), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson).

The household is a disaster, between Michael’s forgetfulness and the advancing years of family housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters), so naturally it’s the perfect time for super-nanny Mary Poppins (Blunt) to, as promised, return. And since Dick Van Dyke’s legendarily terrible Cockney accent in the original film pretty much absolved anyone filling his space in the plot from sounding remotely British, why not cast Miranda as good-natured lamplighter Jack, who becomes a love interest for Jane for little reason beyond the fact that she’s pro-union and he works for a living.

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“Mary Poppins Returns” is never charmless, although it does fluctuate between the charming and the charm-adjacent. While none of the songs make as strong a first impression as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or “Chim-Chim-Cheree,” there are some lovely tunes: “Can You Imagine That?” sees Mary encouraging the children to use their imaginations; Angela Lansbury leads the ensemble on “Nowhere to Go But Up” (the movie’s “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” equivalent); and Meryl Streep fills in for Ed Wynn with the boisterously silly “Turning Turtle.”

Other musical moments fall a bit short, however. The lamplighters’ show-stopper “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” plays like a copy of a copy of “Step In Time,” and Whishaw’s “A Conversation” (with his dead wife) didn’t wring the tears from me that it clearly intended to, and if there’s a weak spot where movies can hit me, it’s with a good dead-mommy moment. And while Shaiman and Wittman are unquestionably talented songsmiths (with “Hairspray” and countless other movie and Broadway scores to their credit), the strain of trying to fit into the mode of two different songwriters, the legendary Shermans, shows periodically.

The leads, to their credit, try hard to make magic and occasionally succeed. Blunt, so wonderful as the Baker’s Wife in Marshall’s screen adaptation of “Into the Woods,” brings Mary Poppins’ prickly undertone into even the most potentially gooey moments; her no-nonsense underpinnings make the film’s flights of fancy even more of a delight. As for Miranda, he inhabits the kind of seemingly-effortless performance skills that were once well represented among a subset of Hollywood stars; they may not make musicals like they used to, but it’s gratifying to see that they occasionally make the kind of song-and-dance men who could have held their own at MGM.

Also Read: That Time Dick Van Dyke Peed in the Bushes and Paid Walt Disney for 2nd ‘Mary Poppins’ Role

The advances in technology since 1964 don’t always work in the new film’s favor; the mix of live-action performers in an animated backdrop comes off more airlessly here than it once did, although when Mary Poppins does her magic or takes flight, however, the effect is (and the effects are) seamless. The screenplay feels doggedly 2018, though, from the third-act ticking-clock chase sequence to the mid-life crisis subplot (you know, for kids — shades of Disney’s summer disappointment “Christopher Robin”).

There’s probably no real reason for “Mary Poppins Returns” to exist at all, but now that it’s here, it does at least find some moments of delight even as it travels a familiar path.



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‘Once Upon a Deadpool’ Film Review: Ryan Reynolds Cleverly Milks Cash Cow a Second Time

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Rereleasing old films in new packages has been a popular practice throughout the history of cinema; B-movie distributors used to send features out on the drive-in circuit multiple times under various titles (this practice is the source of several jokes in “Grindhouse”), and 20th Century Fox once tried to recoup losses on the megabomb Julie Andrews musical “Star!” by trimming the running time and retitling it “Those Were the Happy Times.”

Fox is at it again with “Once Upon a Deadpool,” a trimmed-down-to-PG-13 version of “Deadpool 2” that will be in theaters from Dec. 12-24, with one dollar from every ticket sold going to the charity F— Cancer (which will be retitling itself “Fudge Cancer,” in the PG-13 spirit of the film, during the run).

The real selling point is the new interstitial sequences, in which Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) takes a page from “The Princess Bride” and reads the film as a story to Fred Savage — only it’s 2018 Fred Savage, playing himself, kidnapped and strapped to a bed in a room that has been art-directed to be identical to the one from “Princess Bride.” In true “Deadpool” style, the movie shows you the joke, then tells you it’s a joke, then looks at the camera to make sure you got it. That sounds terrible on paper, but these movies somehow know how to make this brand of humor work.

Watch Video: ‘Once Upon a Deadpool’ Trailer: Ryan Reynolds Kidnaps Fred Savage for Festive PG-13 Bedtime Story

Reynolds has this drily ironic fourth-wall business down pat, and Savage makes for an entertaining foil. If “Deadpool 2” gave Reynolds the excuse to look at the camera and say “Lazy writing” in regards to certain labored plot points, “Once Upon a Deadpool” lets Savage speak for the audience when mentioning, for example, that the film’s female lead Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) has been fridged, or that the backstory for time-traveling assassin Cable (Josh Brolin) is much more interesting in the comics.

All told, these charming sketches take up no more than about 20 minutes of screen time, and beyond that, you’re just watching “Deadpool 2” again, albeit with some of the violence trimmed, some of the coarse language covered up, and a brand-new, digitally-inserted tribute to the recently departed Stan Lee. As I noted in my original review, watching “Deadpool 2” the first time wasn’t all that different from watching “Deadpool,” so whether or not you’re up for another go-round is a matter of taste, as is whether or not you want to buy a ticket to see a movie ensconced in the ultimate DVD extra.

Watch Video: Deadpool and Fred Savage Debate Nickelback: ‘Overproduced, Formulaic Ear Garbage’

So since there’s no real point in reviewing “Once Upon a Deadpool,” here are a few thoughts regarding the experience of watching “Deadpool 2” again:

• I’m not a parent, but in the age of Netflix and iTunes and Hulu and very large multiplexes, is there really anything left these days to stand between an R-rated movie and a very determined 11-year-old?
• Parents who would like their younger kids to enjoy a superhero movie with self-aware humor, comics-insider jokes and meta-commentary should check out “Teen Titans GO! to the Movies.”
• Watching TJ Miller in anything is still really uncomfortable.
• I did not catch the Brad Pitt cameo until Reynolds and Savage stopped the movie to point it out.
• Zazie Beetz as Domino totally deserves her own spin-off. And even though the “Deadpool” movies have yet to go all-in on the character’s bisexuality, it’s great that they’re so supportive of Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) having a girlfriend.
• For me, the original “Deadpool” held up better for a second viewing, and that was on a plane.



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‘Bathtubs Over Broadway’ Film Review: Ebullient Doc Sheds Light on Musicals Aimed at Corporate America

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

If Dava Whisenant’s joyous documentary “Bathtubs Over Broadway” served only to spotlight the occluded corner of American musical history known as the “industrial musical,” it would be perfectly entertaining in its own right. But in its portrayal of one man’s unusual journey, the film has much to say about turning ironic amusement into unalloyed appreciation.

And if you don’t know what an “industrial musical” is, relax — we were never meant to see them in the first place. Starting in the 1950s, these shows were crafted to entertain and inspire the sales reps from companies like Xerox and General Electric. Expensive and elaborate, they were often performed only a few times, at conventions or sales meetings, and they mostly exist now on souvenir soundtrack recordings (of shows with names like “Diesel Dazzle” or “The Bathrooms Are Coming!”) that weren’t intended to be shared with the general public.

Decades later, “Late Night with David Letterman” writer Steve Young began stumbling upon these albums as he started collecting bizarre bits of vinyl effluvia for the “Dave’s Record Collection” segment of the show. While Letterman dismissed a song called “My Insurance Man” as being “more annoying than listening to my insurance man,” Young found himself hooked.

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A self-described comedy casualty — someone who’s been working in the field so long that almost nothing funny provokes a response anymore — Young started tracking down these “For Internal Use Only” records, a trek that put him in touch first with other collectors (including punk legends Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys and Don Bolles of The Germs) and then with the performers and the composers behind these unusual, unknown extravaganzas.

The industrial musical wound up being a fertile training ground for Broadway; we see some big names-to-be listed in the liner notes, and “Bathtubs” gets Chita Rivera, the late Florence Henderson, Martin Short, Tony-winning director Susan Stroman and “Fiddler on the Roof” co-creator Sheldon Harnick to sit down with Young to discuss their participation in these shows. Stroman shares how dealing with dancing beer cans shaped her later direction of hits like “The Producers,” while Short remembers the industrials as a desirable gig, with great pay and good hotel rooms.

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The genre being examined here is a fascinating one, and you’d be surprised how hummable songs like “22 Slices of Bread” or “My Bathroom” can be. Whisenant, who also edits, loops in tantalizing archival footage of these shows, with beaming singers extolling the virtues of AB Dick copy machines and Purina Dog Chow’s incentives to grocers. One could hardly accuse these performers of “selling out”; they might be performing at the behest of corporate America, but these kids are clearly giving it their all.

But just as fascinating is Steve Young’s journey from someone with no hobbies and seemingly no friends outside of his immediate family to a dogged cultural anthropologist who grows close to his fellow fans and to the artists who never thought anyone would ask them about that show they wrote about tractors. We see Young get close with singers and writers, and particularly two composers; he winds up collaborating with one — Dion Beebe, the man behind “Diesel Dazzle” — and delivering a eulogy for another. As you might imagine from a pair of Letterman veterans (Whisenant was an editor on the show), the interviews with Young’s co-workers and family express a deadpan astonishment at his area of interest; thankfully, the movie loves and respects creatives like Patt Stanton Gjonola (the singer of “My Bathroom”) and Beebe as much as Young does.

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And while the film never specifically connects these dots, “Bathtubs Over Broadway” is about what happens when admiration replaces snark. Letterman (who executive produced and is interviewed here) and his show represented a sort of Ground Zero for a specific kind of Generation X hipper-than-thou humor, and to see one of his writers evolve from mocking these corporate shows to unabashedly adoring them provides a road map for lovers of kitsch who want to take the “guilty” out of “guilty pleasure.”

“Bathtubs Over Broadway” is pure pleasure, both in its exploration of a hidden and uniquely American corner of show business and its portrait of the charmingly nerdy Young and his singular path toward rescuing this sub-sub-sub-genre while many of its executors are still alive to tell their stories.



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‘Anna and the Apocalypse’ Film Review: Zombies, Musicals and Christmas Make a Merry Mash-Up

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

We’re accustomed to horror movies using creativity and artistry to cover up their low budgets; a filmmaker can create plenty of scares with one set and a cast of four. The low-budget musical, on the other hand, is expected to provide splashy razzle-dazzle and grandeur with the same economy of means, and it’s a tougher genre to make succeed on a dime. That said, if you’re willing to overlook a little scruffiness at the edges, it’s a Christmas miracle that the Scottish import “Anna and the Apocalypse” works so well as both a horror movie and a musical.

And “Christmas miracle” should be taken literally, because this is a holiday movie as well. And if you don’t think the undead mix well with musical numbers and gaudy Yuletide decor, “Anna” might be the movie to change your mind.

It’s a film that the protagonist of “Heathers” might call “teen angst with a body count”: High-school senior Anna (Ella Hunt), mourning the death of her mother, has put off telling her father, Tony (Mark Benton, “Eddie the Eagle”), that she wants to go to Australia rather than heading directly to university. Anna’s best pal John (Malcolm Cumming) pines for her despite those feelings not being reciprocal. Newspaper editor Steph (Sarah Swire, who also choreographs) has been dumped by her girlfriend and abandoned by her vacationing parents for the holidays.

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All these mini-dramas get shoved to the background, of course, when the zombies emerge. And while “Anna and the Apocalypse” doesn’t rewrite the rules of any of its genres — Anna and John sing the upbeat “Turning My Life Around,” oblivious to the carnage unfolding behind them, in a scene very reminiscent of “Shaun of the Dead” — it’s got a real spark of joy, even when the story turns grim. And while this might be a comic and tuneful zombie saga, it doesn’t mean that every likable character is going to make it to the final fade-out.

As musicals go, “Anna” is closer to “La La Land” or “The Last Five Years” than to “Moulin Rouge!”: There’s only one elaborate moment of group choreography (“Hollywood Ending,” a song about adolescent disappointment), with most of the songs involving just a handful of performers. But plenty of tonal flavors are represented, from upbeat (the aforementioned “Turning My Life Around”) to the yearning (“Break Away,” “Human Voice”).

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Anna’s ex Nick (Ben Wiggins) gets to fancy himself a “Soldier at War,” as the zombie outbreak lets him put his bullying to practical use, and there’s even a saucy holiday song, “Christmas Means Nothing Without You,” which ups the innuendo ante from “Santa Baby.” (The music and lyrics are by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly.)

The main cast (including Marli Sui and Christopher Leveaux as a pair of high-school sweethearts) nimbly balance the film’s multitude of tones; Hunt, in particular, makes a forceful and empathetic leading lady, while Cumming charmingly steals scenes as the goofy BFF who’s never going to be the BF.

But Paul Kaye (“Game of Thrones”) goes overboard as the school’s power-mad headmaster, shooting for the kind of grand grotesque usually played by “Rocky Horror” creator Richard O’Brien. Compared to the rest of the performers, he appears to have wandered in from the Christmas panto show next door.

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There’s a fascinating story-behind-the-story to “Anna and the Apocalypse”: Filmmaker Ryan McHenry, the man behind the viral “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal” clips, made a “High School Musical”-inspired short called “Zombie Musical,” but he tragically died of bone cancer before he could make the feature.

His friends took up the cause, hiring John McPhail to direct the film; for someone working with limited means, and shooting on locations rather than sets, McPhail brings the film a cohesive look, less slick than “High School Musical” but more along the lines of songs breaking out in the midst of a European “Degrassi” knock-off.

Those charitable enough to watch a musical that doesn’t feature overhead cameras sweeping over hundreds of chorines may enjoy “Anna” for its humble charms. And if those assembly-line Hallmark flicks made you think there was nothing new in the world of Christmas movies, get ready for a breath of fresh air — one that smells like both pine needles and blood.



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‘Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch’ Film Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Helps Make Third Time Charming

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

While researching the history of Christmas movies, I watched 22 different adaptations of “A Christmas Carol,” and even that felt like just scratching the surface. So if Ebenezer Scrooge can be subject to myriad interpretations — even when some fans are convinced that one version or other is the “definitive” one — why shouldn’t the Grinch?

That’s an easier argument to make now that we have “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” as an example of how to revisit the material, particularly since the 2000 live-action take was such a grim and overblown piece of Yule-sploitation. That version no doubt led many to dread this latest one, from “Minions”-makers Illumination Entertainment, but this new animated feature is bright, both in its color palette and in the wit and liveliness of the storytelling.

You know the tale: the curmudgeonly Grinch (now voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) lives high atop Mount Crumpet with his devoted dog Max, hating the Whos down below in Whoville, and especially loathing their annual celebration of Christmas. This year he decides he’s going to steal the holiday by dressing up as Santa Claus and pilfering all their presents and trees and wreaths and decorations. (Alas, this version gives us no Who-Cardio-Shnook, although there are plenty of other visual representations of Seussian doodads.)

Watch Video: ‘The Grinch’ Trailer: Benedict Cumberbatch Is Mean, Green and Ready to Take Down Christmas

Unlike many other movies that stretch and warp a lovely children’s book beyond recognition by dragging it into a three-act structure — looking at you, “The Polar Express” — this “Grinch” builds on the source material without distending it past the point of the original’s charm. We get a tiny bit of Grinch back-story (he grew up alone in a Dickensian orphanage, and Christmas cheer and singing feels to him like a personal affront), but the script by Michael LeSieur (“Glory Daze”) and Tommy Swerdlow (“Snow Dogs”) doesn’t dwell on his origin story the way the Ron Howard version does. (They also very skillfully write Seussian rhyming couplets for narrator Pharrell.)

The other additions to the Seuss tale — hyper-friendly, decoration-loving Who Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson); the reason why Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely, “The Greatest Showman”) desperately wants to meet Santa; even an actual reindeer who gets briefly drafted for sleigh-pulling service — all serve the plot and never feel like padding. And while this Grinch isn’t the complete misanthrope that Seuss created (and Boris Karloff cemented in the popular imagination), he’s still a mean one: a young Who who makes the mistake of building a snowman in the Grinch’s path sees his handiwork vandalized before getting a snowball in the face for good measure.

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Cumberbatch isn’t trying to channel Karloff (or, thank goodness, Jim Carrey); his Grinch is snarly and embittered, but you see glimmers of kindness, even if they’re only directed occasionally at Max. That doesn’t make his eventual heart-grows-three-sizes redemption any less satisfying, though. He’s backed up by a talented voice ensemble that includes Rashida Jones and, in an all-too-brief cameo as the mayor of Whoville, Angela Lansbury.

Where “The Grinch” really shines, often literally, is in its presentation of Whoville itself. Directors Yarrow Cheney (“The Secret Life of Pets”) and Scott Mosier (Kevin Smith’s longtime producer) have created a lovely holiday bauble: the town is a glimmering pop-up croquembouche-cum-diorama festooned with lights and garlands and snow, and it’s a dream of a fantasy Christmas village. As characters sled through it (there’s lots of swooping going on here, no doubt to attract the 3D audience), it feels like visiting the inside of a magical snowglobe.

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There are some missteps here, to be sure, having mostly to do with the music choices. Tyler, the Creator’s hip-hop-flavored take on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is bound to age badly, along with the film’s bag of adult-contemporary holiday chestnuts from the likes of Buster Poindexter and The Brian Setzer Orchestra. (Nat King Cole and Run DMC, however, fit nicely into this stocking.)

Purists may balk about revisiting this tale, but “The Grinch” earns its laughter and its sentiment, both of which are plentiful. It’s a full-throated Fah-Who-Foraze.



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‘Nobody’s Fool’ Film Review: Tyler Perry Makes Tiffany Haddish Do All the Work

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Tyler Perry loves to torture rich characters and female characters who put career over love and family, so just one look at the New York apartment of rising ad exec Danica (Tika Sumpter, “Southside With You”) in “Nobody’s Fool” makes it apparent that the writer-director has put two targets on her back.

Her high-rise two-bedroom has the kind of Manhattan square footage usually reserved exclusively for oil sheiks and media heiresses, and it’s furnished with the soullessness of a Wayfair.com commercial. It also boasts the phoniest skyscraper views this side of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” although the latter film made them obviously fake on purpose.

I mention the apartment because it makes no sense, which makes it the perfect avatar for “Nobody’s Fool,” a comedy that, even by Tyler Perry’s notoriously lax standards, has very little internal logic or narrative drive. The movie is ostensibly the story of Danica learning to loosen up and love her own flaws, and those of other people, but it’s really a delivery device for Tiffany Haddish as Danica’s sister Tanya.

Watch Video: ‘Nobody’s Fool’ Trailer: Tiffany Haddish Is Out of Prison and Ready to Kill the Guy Catfishing Her Sister

Where Danica is hard-working, focused and soft-spoken, Tanya is her exact opposite: she’s just gotten out of jail after five years, announces inappropriate opinions at full volume, and cuts through other people’s B.S. so they can stop kidding themselves and start living better lives. In short, she’s this movie’s Madea, and boy does it need one.

The plot involves Danica taking Tanya in post-release, and as Tanya gets back on her feet by working at a coffee house owned by nice-guy Frank (Omari Hardwick, “Power”), a budding relationship between Frank and Danica is stymied by her long-distance boyfriend and by the fact that Frank doesn’t fit all the items on Danica’s literal list of attributes she wants in a man; he has a child with another woman (we see this kid once before he disappears from the movie), is a recovering addict, and has been to jail, even though he’s obviously gotten his act together.

(Whoopi Goldberg, sporting a wig and an indoor marijuana farm that make her this movie’s Aunt Bam, pops up occasionally as Tanya and Danica’s mom in Jersey to dispense advice and toughlove.)

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If a rumor started going around that Perry and his cast were just making up the movie as it went along, that would be a credible story. The plot galumphs around from idea to idea: the issue of whether or not Danica is being catfished by her long-distance man prompts the appearance of Nev and Max from MTV’s “Catfish” (MTV is the Viacom sibling of BET, and BET Films produced this movie), and Danica spends lots of time working on an ad campaign in scenes that indicate that Perry learned everything he knows about the world of business from the Hallmark Channel.

When most of Haddish’s scenes end with one of her co-stars breaking character and laughing, it’s clear that Perry just turned the cameras on and let his comedic leading lady go wild. And while Haddish is certainly gifted enough to run with this flimsy material, she would have benefited from someone at the helm paying attention. Poor Sumpter, saddled with this uptight character who exists to embarrass herself and to learn lessons, is game but overwhelmed, while Hardwick makes his character into one of Perry’s more interesting Flawless Rescue Studs. (The FRS is critic Witney Seibold’s male counterpart to Nathan Rabin’s legendary Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.)

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Perry puts some talented comic performers at the margins — Amber Riley, Missi Pyle, Jon Rudnitsky — but they’re mainly stuck either reacting to Haddish or sucking in the huge pockets of dead air in this movie’s comedic timing. It’s interesting to see Perry risk alienating his conservative fans by working in the R-rated sphere (between Haddish’s improvisations and those of a legendary comedian who turns up well into the film, there was probably no way to edit them to PG-13), but given that this is the auteur’s 20th theatrical feature film, there’s no longer any excuse for the pacing issues, the scenes that don’t end and the general flaccidness of his direction.

After Haddish’s star-making turn in “Girls Trip,” many of the internet’s more enthusiastic voices started saying, “Put her in everything!” Perhaps they should have been more specific.



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‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ Film Review: This Sugarplum Is Rancid

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Between now and doomsday, it’s unlikely that we’ll get a movie that will defile the work of Tchaikovsky and E.T.A. Hoffman more than 2010’s “The Nutcracker in 3D,” the movie that took the classic story and ballet and added Holocaust metaphors, Tim Rice-penned hip-hop lyrics, and a bizarre turn by Nathan Lane as Albert Einstein. But while it may not be quite as terrible, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” earns runner-up status on the list of worst cinematic “Nutcracker” misfires.

Maybe it was the massive reshoots — directorial credit is shared by Lasse Hallstrom, who shot the first go-round, and Joe Johnston — or perhaps the script by first-timer Ashleigh Powell was always muddled and convoluted, but the results are singularly dispiriting. Rather than harken back to an elegant, whimsical earlier period of history, this “Nutcracker” calls to mind the early 2010s, when the success of “Alice in Wonderland” led to a spate of fairy-tale characters being given swords and marched off to war with hordes of CG creatures.

By the time seven-foot-tall automaton tin soldiers attack a 30-foot robot woman whose skirts are a circus big top, all semblance of humanity or empathy has escaped the film, but the movie’s soul starts leaking out pretty early. The opening is promising enough: young Clara (Mackenzie Foy, “Interstellar”) hides in the attic studying physics and building Rube Goldberg-ian mousetraps as a way of dealing with her grief over her mother’s recent death. On Christmas Eve, her bereaved father (Matthew Macfadyen) gives the children presents that mom left for them; Clara gets a locked music box, but no key.

Watch Video: ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ Trailer: Mackenzie Foy Sees The Magical Dark Side of Legendary Tale

At a ball that evening, Clara ducks out to find Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who built the box. Later that night Drosselmeyer has the children follow strings around the house to find their presents; Clara’s string takes her into another dimension where she learns that her mother was a queen of four realms, each one ruled by sweet Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), flower-covered Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), icy Shiver (Richard E. Grant) and Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). As Clara arrives, the latter seems to be waging war with the other three realms, and it’s up to Clara to fix the situation.

The movie then spends a sizable chunk of its real estate trying to explain its own premise. There’s a giant machine built by Clara’s mother that brings toys to life but can also turn people back into toys. Sugar Plum demonstrates — for no reason other than to explain how Clara can have adventures yet still return to Drosselmeyer’s party on time — that time moves much more quickly in the Four Realms than it does back on Earth. (Maybe this movie needed Einstein in it instead.)

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Clara gets a tour of the realms (one made of candy, one of flowers, one of frost) that serves little purpose but to give costume designer Jenny Beavan, unquestionably the film’s MVP, a chance to shine. And then the movie stops dead in its tracks for Misty Copeland to do a dance about Clara’s mother, but even this dance doesn’t quite explain if Clara’s mother created this world, or discovered it, or what exactly.

Stopping the movie, at this point, is actually a kindness, and would that Copeland could have just starred in a more literal adaptation of the ballet. Her contributions are glorious and all-too-brief, but this interjection of dance and music at least gives her a moment to shine, alongside conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who appears in silhouette with his orchestra in a moment that seems right out of “Fantasia.” (That’s not the film’s only quotation: We open with a dizzying, aggressively artificial birds-eye swoop through Victorian London that is so obviously a piece of animation that it could have come directly from Robert Zemeckis’ awful motion-capture “A Christmas Carol.”)

Also Read: Can ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Rock the Box Office Despite Tepid Reviews?

The “child travels to a magical land and learns things” trope has been the basis of many beloved stories, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Phantom Tollbooth” to “The Chronicles of Narnia.” But it’s not a foolproof device, particularly when the magical land in question never makes much narrative sense; besides, how can the Four Realms be magical when the London where Clara already lives is so obviously a cartoon? Both the “real” world and the fake one are ugly, overdone, and lacking any visual connection to gravity let alone reality.

Also not helping matters are the barely sketched-in characters. Knightley scores at least a few fun moments as a bubbly pixie miles away from her usual dramatic leading ladies of literature, but Grant and Derbez are stuck letting their costumes do all the work, never mind that they provided some of this year’s finest comedy work in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “Overboard,” respectively.

If there’s a ballet company anywhere near you, they are most likely staging “The Nutcracker,” and they are no doubt hoping that the profits from this crowd-pleaser will get them through the rest of the year. Support them with the money you might otherwise have thrown at this misbegotten assault on the eyes.



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‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Film Review: Queen Bio Won’t Exactly Rock You

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

An object example of how a film can be entertaining and even exhilarating without being particularly good, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has the driving energy of a stadium anthem and the fizzy meaninglessness of a bubblegum pop song.

As a biopic of flamboyantly theatrical gay frontman Freddie Mercury, the movie frequently falls short, but it does provide interesting origin stories for many of the hits created by Mercury’s band Queen. Wisely, the movie wraps everything up with a rousing recreation of Queen stealing the show at 1985’s Live Aid, providing the equivalent of a band making you forget a mediocre set by performing a dazzling encore. The end of “Bohemian Rhapsody” marks the first (and no doubt last) time that I was brought to tears by “Radio Gaga.”

Very much an “authorized” biopic — band members Brian May and Roger Taylor are credited as “Executive Music Producers” — the film is a rather rote road-to-stardom tale: In 1970, a Heathrow baggage handler named Freddie Bulsara (Rami Malek) meets dental student Roger (Ben Hardy, “Only the Brave”) and astrophysics student Brian (Gwilym Lee, “Midsomer Murders”) and informs them that they need to make him their lead singer. Add bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation), and Queen is born.

Watch Video: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’: Rami Malek Is the Champion of the World in Trailer for Freddie Mercury Biopic

The group quickly gets label attention, due mainly to the vocal chops and stage presence of their lead singer, who has redubbed himself “Freddie Mercury,” much to the chagrin of his Parsi parents. Queen battles with EMI over the “A Night at the Opera” album, particularly over “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which gives the eponymous film one of its most rapturous segments, as the band pieces together this complicated, elaborate, genre-defying pop single. (The casting of Mike Myers as BMI exec Ray Foster is amusing, given the connection between the song and “Wayne’s World,” but the movie overplays its hand by having Foster say that kids in cars will never bang their heads to the song.)

In his personal life, we see Freddie fall for Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, “Sing Street”), to whom he would propose, compose love songs for, and repeatedly refer to as the love of his life. But when Queen goes on the road, Freddie enjoys a series of quick and anonymous liaisons with men. Upon his return, she confronts him about the cracks in their marriage; “I think I’m bisexual,” he finally confesses, which Mary shuts down with a firm: “Freddie. You’re gay.”

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There was concern in some quarters that the film would tamp down Mercury’s homosexuality, and to its credit, it’s right there on screen from the get-go. (Moments before he catches Mary’s eye for the first time, he cruises a handsome young man.) And for a movie that literally opens with an HIV-positive Mercury coughing — letting us know early that subtlety will not be on the menu — the film does handle its protagonist’s issues with AIDS-related complication respectfully, if fleetingly.

It’s worth noting, however, that “Bohemian Rhapsody” also goes out of its way to create a hissable gay villain: manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech, “Downton Abbey”), presented here as an old-school Devious Queen, all but twirls his ’70s-clone mustache as he drives a wedge between Freddie and the band, leading to an unsuccessful solo career and a schism that will have to be healed in time for Live Aid, even though most biographical accounts of Queen seem to suggest that this parting and reuniting is pure fiction. (Mercury’s first solo album under his own name didn’t come out until 1985, the year that Live Aid took place.)

The film offers interesting glimpses into how hits like “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” came to be, while leaving out other moments that fans might want to see, from triumphs (“Flash Gordon,” recording “Under Pressure” with David Bowie, opera-lover Mercury’s duet with legendary diva Monserrat Caballé) to debacles (“Body Language”). Screenwriter Anthony McCarten is no stranger to biopic contrivance (he previously wrote “Darkest Hour” and “The Theory of Everything”), but he outdoes himself in the third act of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in which disparate emotional arcs in Freddie’s life are all resolved en route to Wembley for Live Aid. Here’s hoping that chauffeur got a hefty tip for all that dramatic reconciliation.

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But admittedly, that Live Aid sequence so thrillingly captures what is considered both a high point in live rock performance and a historical moment in Queen’s career that it justifies making and seeing the movie. Malek doesn’t always nail the off-stage Mercury — he struggles with the dental prosthetic he’s been given to match the singer’s legendary overbite, as though it had been thrust into his mouth for the first time seconds before cameras were rolling — but with a microphone in his hand and lip-synching to Mercury’s vocals, Malek captures the electricity of a rock god at the height of his powers. It’s a moment where everything the movie has to offer and everyone who worked on it — particularly cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (“Drive”) and editor John Ottman (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”) — are firing on all cylinders.

As an inducement to dig into the Queen back catalog, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an unqualified success. But when it tries to be a genuine biopic of a groundbreaking band and its singular lead singer, it’s more like a little silhouette-o of a man.



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‘Stan & Ollie’ Film Review: Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly Capture Laurel & Hardy Onstage and Off

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

In the hilarious movie comedies of the immortal Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, many of the laughs come from watching the duo teetering on the brink, unaware that they’re about to crash their car or to have a floor give way under them or to drop a piano down a very tall flight of stairs.

“Stan & Ollie,” which explores the duo’s career in its final stages — as well as their ongoing off-screen relationship — does a lot of teetering on its own, although luckily it never topples. It’s a story about the serious side of comedians that never indulges in sad-clown sentimentality. It calls upon modern actors to recreate iconic film moments without falling prey to the many potential embarrassments of such restagings. And it intelligently explores the limitations of working partnerships, not to mention the elusive line between partnership and friendship, in a way that neither canonizes nor excoriates its famous subjects.

In other words, there are many moments in which “Stan & Ollie” could have, but doesn’t, drop the piano. It’s a testament to the extraordinary performances by Steve Coogan (as Stan Laurel) and John C. Reilly (as Oliver Hardy), as well as the screenplay by Jeff Pope (working from A.J. Marriot’s book “Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours”) and the direction from Jon S. Baird (“Filth”), that this funny, moving film becomes that rare show-biz biopic that doesn’t bury its subject in an attempt to praise it.

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Not that it’s really a biopic: the film does begin at the Hal Roach Studios in 1937, where Laurel and Hardy are the hottest comic duo in Hollywood. Even amidst their success, however, Stan thinks they’re being mistreated by Roach (Danny Huston); he considers playing hardball in their contract renegotiations or maybe even taking the duo to another studio, but the more easy-going Ollie — currently racked with debt after a string of failed marriages — would rather go along and get along.

The story then jumps ahead to the 1950s, where the heyday of Laurel and Hardy is now a fond memory. The two men embark on a tour of the United Kingdom, in the hopes of stoking a British producer’s interest in making a Robin Hood parody that Stan spends all his time rewriting. Oliver’s a lot heavier than he used to be, making the pratfalls and the dancing difficult, and at first, they’re chagrined that their tour manager Bernard Delfont (an amusingly oily Rufus Jones) has booked them in third-rate music halls and even sketchier hotels.

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But as the duo commits to publicity stunts for the newsreel cameras, the audiences show up and the venues and the accommodations improve, and by the time they get to London, they’re playing the Victoria and staying at the Savoy, just in time to greet their wives — Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) — who have traveled from the States to meet up with them. A former script girl and retired dancer, respectively, Lucille and Ida have a hilariously prickly chemistry; there could be a whole movie of Henderson and Arianda as a comedy duo of their own, getting on each other’s nerves but ultimately having each other’s backs.

Those British audiences still love Laurel and Hardy, but that affection is very much tinged with nostalgia; every fan they encounter says something along the lines of “I can’t believe you’re still doing these old routines.” And while that producer continues to dodge Stan’s calls, and Oliver’s knee bothers him more and more, things finally come to a head after their London opening night, in which the two old comics have the kind of brutal, cutting confrontation that only people who’ve worked together for decades can have: Stan reveals he still feels betrayed that Oliver didn’t stand by him in the fight with Roach, and Oliver responds that while Stan has always loved “Laurel & Hardy,” he’s never been much of a real friend.

Moments like this land because Coogan and Reilly have managed to make these screen legends into life-size human beings; they recreate the vintage comic bits perfectly, from Hardy’s wails of pain and huffs of exasperation to Laurel’s rubberfaced expressions and wide-eyed silliness, but it’s in the offstage, relatable moments that these characters truly come alive. (Makeup artist Mark Coulier and his team deserve praise for giving Reilly prosthetics that make him look like a much heftier man and not like an actor who is swathed in putty.)

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For film lovers, it’s a particularly excruciating brand of torture to watch inept modern-day mimicry of cherished cinematic moments, so it’s worth spotlighting the grace with which Coogan and Reilly perform, and Baird directs, classic Laurel and Hardy shtick. The film even suggests that Stan and Oliver would reflexively fall into performance mode as part of their daily life without hitting us over the head with it, and the current actors nail the timing and the physicality throughout.

Cinematographer Laurie Rose (“Overlord”) scores an impressive tracking shot early on as Stan and Oliver make their way past showgirls and centurions as they go from their dressing room to the set of “Way Out West,” but the film tends toward TV levels of brightness, even when the characters are in a damp boarding house or crumbling theater. Rolfe Kent’s score segues from silent-movie sprightliness to more somber themes, but like the rest of the film, it never overplays the more dramatic moments.

“Stan & Ollie” sees screen legends being cued to exit whether they want to or not, but it manages to do so without being dreary or lachrymose, like so many other films about fading Hollywood stars. It gives Steve Coogan one of his finest screen roles to date and for Reilly, it’s another triumph right on the heels of “The Sisters Brothers.” Whether you adore Laurel and Hardy or have never seen them in action, this film celebrates both the artist and the tenacity it takes to remain one.

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‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Film Review: Melissa McCarthy Forges Strong Performance

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

It’s not uncommon for up-and-coming writers to imitate the voices of influential authors in the process of creating their own style, but biographer Lee Israel took the process a step further by faking letters by literary legends for her own illicit profits. Portraying Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, Melissa McCarthy captures the thrill of successful mimicry, although her screen performance is quite unlike anything she’s done before.

Like many great comic creations, McCarthy’s earlier roles have often contained a core of barely-concealed rage, allowing her to blast through a world that barely knows how to handle her. Here, the character is subsumed with such misanthropy that she can barely make it to her local gay bar to knock back some scotch-and-sodas.

Other McCarthy films – particularly the ones she co-creates with her husband, actor-director Ben Falcone – often call for her character to weepily atone for her obstreperousness. (“Tammy,” “The Boss” and “Identity Thief” could also have been called “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” for those contrition scenes alone.) In this movie, the breakdown feels more earned and not as a repudiation for the actress playing women who dare to be as bold, brash and lacking an inside voice as her male comedy counterparts.

Watch Video: Watch Melissa McCarthy Forge a Path Into the Oscar Race in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Trailer

When we meet Lee Israel, she’s hard-up for cash, with previous books sitting on remainder tables and her agent (Jane Curtin) telling her that no one wants to read Lee’s proposed biography of Fanny Brice. But it’s in the Brice research that she discovers a personal letter from the vaudeville star, tucked into a biography. When she goes to sell it, the dealer tells her it’s less valuable than Lee’s apology note from Katharine Hepburn, which reflects more of the celebrity’s personality.

A light goes off above her head, and Lee starts buying old typewriters and forging fake notes from the likes of Noel Coward and Edna Ferber. (“I write a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” Lee boasts at one point.) The money starts rolling in, and she can pay her back rent and veterinarian bills. The authorities, eventually, start closing in, but “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is less about this literary caper and more about Lee Israel herself.

Watch Video: Melissa McCarthy Crashes Christina Aguilera’s ‘Carpool Karaoke’ to Spit Redman’s ‘Dirrty’ Bars

Her one friend in the world is a rascally gay coke dealer played by Richard E. Grant as a charming rogue who would set off most people’s trouble-alert at ten feet. He becomes her accomplice — despite not knowing any of the people whose identities Lee is faking — and he’s the one person to whom she can open up about her life and shortcomings. At one point, she admits to breaking up with an ex because “she wanted me to listen to her talk about her feelings, and get closer to her friends, and s–t like that.”

The film is an impressive showcase for McCarthy, giving her a role that tests her dramatic chops without being humor-free, and that puts her in a precarious situation of her own making without ever turning maudlin about it. Director Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (“The Land of Steady Habits”) and Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) never shy away from Lee’s bitterness while portraying how her inability to schmooze is hampering her career as a writer. Curtin, reminding us that she should be in everything, gets a great toughlove monologue in which she lays out why Lee isn’t making Tom Clancy money and what steps she would need to take to do so.

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The script is populated with characters who make an impression, even in just a scene or two, and casting director Jennifer Euston (“Camping”) has populated the film with throngs of talented New York actors to play them, including Anna Deveare Smith, Stephen Spinella, and Michael Cyril Creighton. Grant has a blast with one of his most wastrel-ish characters since “Withnail and I,” and Dolly Wells is heartbreaking as a bookstore owner smitten with Lee.

The act of recreating the voice of others, albeit illegally, ultimately empowered Israel to write the well-received memoir on which this film was based. And the act of playing Lee Israel will, with any luck, empower more filmmakers to think of Melissa McCarthy as an actress whose gifts range beyond broad comedy.



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