‘The Secret Garden’ is Back for a New Generation

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The Secret Garden 2020 (CREDIT: Studiocanal)

Starring: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson

Director: Marc Munden

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG for Some Kids and a Dog Running Around Like They Own the Place

Release Date: August 7, 2020 (On Demand)

I contend that The Secret Garden is best experienced at a young age and then remembered as some half-formed dream. I’m pretty sure I saw the 1993 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel that starred Maggie Smith, but I don’t have any specific memories of it. (Furthermore, I don’t really remember seeing Smith in anything before Harry Potter.) When I heard that a new Secret Garden was arriving in 2020, I thought of A Little Princess, the other mid-90s adaptation of a Frances Hodgson Burnett book. With all that scrambling going on in my head, it’s important to identify one key difference, as the 2020 Garden shoots the setting ahead to 1947, as opposed to the early 20th century when the book was published.

That update doesn’t make a huge difference to me, an American who considers the vast English estates of 1947 to be pretty dang similar to the vast English estates of 1911. But it certainly makes a difference to the orphaned Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), who was born in India to English parents who now finds herself adrift much as the British Empire was adrift in the buildup to the Indian Partition. She is sent to live with her uncle Archibald (Colin Firth) in a mansion that seems to have no geographic connection to the rest of the world. When she arrives, she attempts to cajole her wheelchair-bound cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) out of bed, but since he seems to have forgotten how to experience the joys of childhood, she must venture outside on her own to the estate’s seemingly infinite grounds. There she befriends a scruffy dog and the unsupervised Dickon (Amir Wilson) and also becomes entranced by the most sun-dappled vegetation in all of England.

For my money, The Secret Garden is about the restorative power of nature. Mary and Dickon are the only characters with any sense of joy for most of the film, while Archibald and Colin seem to be spiraling headlong into depression by spending all their time inside. When you’re a kid, the value of getting out of the house can seem like magic, especially in a setting as sublime as this movie’s. Mary certainly displays some magical thinking, both positively and negatively, as she believes herself responsible for her ill mother’s death. Whenever she views things that way, it is obvious that there is some rational explanation. Indeed, with adult eyes, the secret garden does not feel all that secret, and any magical occurrences that take place there probably only look that way from a child’s perspective. But I can see how much May, Colin, and Dickon are enraptured by their wonder of the place, and I hope there are some five-year-old kids out there who see this film and have it stick in a hidden corner of their subconscious that reminds them forever that magic is real.

The Secret Garden is Recommended If You Like: The vast English countryside

Grade: 3 out of 5 Blooms

‘1917’s’ Gimmick is a Technical Feat, But It Gets in the Way of Some Potential Storytelling Resonance

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden

Director: Sam Mendes

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: R for Explosives and Gunfire Flying Through the Air

Release Date: December 25, 2019 (Limited)/Expands January 10, 2020

The World War I men-on-a-mission-to-stop-a-mission film 1917 is one of those flicks, like Birdman or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, that is shot and edited in such a way as to make it appear like one long continuous take. It also has a race-against-the-clock premise, as British Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are sent to deliver a message to another British battalion to call off an attack and thus prevent them from walking into a German trap. Chapman and MacKay display the right sort of nervous energy for a seemingly impossible, deadly task, but honestly, I wish there had been more bells and whistles on their journey. Specifically, it would have been a big help if there had been a clock in the corner of the screen letting us know how much time they had left to successfully deliver the message. That might seem out of place for a film that gets much of its power from disorientation and uncertainty, but when the premise is clear and simple, it helps to have the stakes be clear and simple as well.

Overally, 1917 is impressive and accomplished, but in a manner that often gets in the way of itself. The “almost” nature of the one-shot gimmick is not hard to suss out, as there are plenty of moments when someone turns towards a wall, or the picture becomes total darkness, and it’s clear that a cut would be very easy to do at this moment. Still, a series of several long continuous takes is tough to pull off, and the urgency that technique conveys fits with the subject matter. But … why not cut? Why not let us see the doomed battalion before they realize how doomed they are? The power of this story is in the dramatic irony of fate’s fickleness, and we get only a small portion of that by sticking on one path. Ultimately then, 1917 is a long fancy showcase to show off some filmmaking skillz instead of a fully realized narrative vision.

1917 is Recommended If You Like: The Revenant, Dunkirk, Video game cut scenes

Grade: 3 out of 5 Orders

This Is a Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns

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CREDIT: Jay Maidment/Disney

Mary Poppins is fun and all, but before she showed up again, little Annabel, John, and Georgie could have already turned to their Aunt Jane to take care of all the practical matters that their dad is struggling with. Mary Poppins Returns has magic, or at least attempted magic, in its presentation. Whether or not that magic will hit you squarely in your heart and imagination depends a great deal on your mood, I think. Emily Blunt is acceptably grand in fulfilling her Poppins-y duties, but she’s not as singularly ineffable as Julie Andrews. That’s a tough comparison, sure, but even when considered in isolation, Returns is not much more than a perfectly pleasant passing diversion. And anyway, I’m more interested in Jane’s labor organizing. Not every villain is as sniveling as Colin Firth’s bank manager, which is one reason why unions are so important.

I give Mary Poppins Returns 5 Animated Detours out of 8 Misplaced Documents.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,’ I Can (Mostly) Resist You

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CREDIT: Jonathan Prime/Universal Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Alexa Davies, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan, Dominic Cooper, Andy García, Cher, Meryl Streep

Director: Ol Parker

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Spicy Dialogue

Release Date: July 20, 2018

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again wants us to care about how a young Donna Sheridan (Lily James) met the three possible fathers of her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). Or really, it just wants us to accept that as the framework around which some beautiful people frolic around a sunny Greek isle while singing the songs of ABBA … again! Audiences who already dig this sort of thing appear generally willing to accept whatever thin framework there is. (The setup in the present day, in which Sophie re-opening her late mom’s hotel is threatened by rain, is even thinner.) So it feels petty of me to call out Here We Go Again for its vaguely drawn backstories. But I wouldn’t call attention to them if the script didn’t also keep doing the same thing. Donna and her suitors keep on talking about the lives they are running away from, and if that motivation is so important, I just want to know the specifics. Or really, I think these characters want to tell us the specifics.

For certain audiences, those shortcomings won’t matter one lick, but for me, Here We Go Again never overcomes the inherent weirdness of a musical. But there is some fun to be had along the way that threatens to sweep up everyone in its path. Certainly, Christine Baranski’s tasty bons mot (“be still my beating vagina”) cannot be beat. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman really lets the colors pop, especially the oranges. And the final number, featuring the entire main cast, including Meryl Streep as a beyond-the-grave Donna and Cher as basically herself, really does manage to be irresistible. I don’t want to be a fuddy-duddy, so I will admit I enjoyed myself, but I must say it all feels rather fluffy and empty.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is Recommended If You Like: Singing and Dancing Along Without Asking Any Questions

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Waterloos

This Is a Movie Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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CREDIT: Giles Keyte/Twentieth Century Fox

The Golden Circle is just as exciting as the first Kingsman, and it features a hell of a villainous turn from Julianne Moore. Its attitude is a bit arch, and it often pretends that it isn’t, but that isn’t a huge deal when the action is assembled impressively and the humor does let loose often enough. But ultimately while these flicks are fun, I find it hard to embrace them fully. There is just something weirdly insidious about their politics (or something like politics). It may not even be intentional, but intentional or not, it does unnerve me. I could have forgiven all that if Channing had danced more. Why didn’t Channing dance more?

I give Kingsman: The Golden Circle 2 Cannibal Burgers out of 3 Butterfly Effects.