‘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

Movie Review: ‘Wild Rose’ Demonstrates the Power of Country Music and Forgiveness

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Starring: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo

Director: Tom Harper

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Snogging and Some Cussing

Release Date: June 21, 2019 (Limited)

Great news, country music lovers: Scotland has a country music scene that is just waiting for you to traverse across the pond and discover! Well, it’s not so much a “scene” as much it is one bar and one aspiring professional. Also, I’m describing the Scotland of the fictional film Wild Rose as opposed to the actual Scotland. I cannot speak with any authority about the presence (or lack thereof) of country music in any part of the non-cinematic Great Britain. But I can say that if you are a country music lover, you will appreciate Wild Rose‘s cameos from the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Ashley McBryde as well as Jessie Buckley’s dangerously committed lead performance, in which the Irish-born actress throws herself respectfully full-bore into the intricacies of an American art form.

Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn Harlan, who is bursting fresh out of prison when we first meet her. That’s an origin story that would fit right in with her chosen genre, and she’s got the chops to beat the odds, but alas, she’s also got two young kids and not a whole lot of income to take care of them. Then there’s her mother (Julie Walters), who is good for reminding Rose of her responsibilities but usually in a way that makes her feel pretty crummy. So she takes a job as a housekeeper, and BIG BREAK ALERT, wouldn’t you know it, the woman she works for (Sophie Okonedo) believes in her dreams and might be able to give her a legitimate boost.

It looks like a (kind of well deserved) happy ending is in the cards, but alas, Rose is still grappling with the mistakes of her past, and she is paralyzed whenever she confronts her own self-image. Wild Rose is anchored by a message of forgiveness, and nobody needs to hear that message more than Rose does. There are few actors who are as skilled as Buckley at carrying psychological detritus, which is why it is so satisfying whenever anyone in Rose’s orbit offers her a second chance and when she finally accepts those offers. If you have to live through the struggle to truly be a country music star, then here comes Wild Rose-Lynn.

Wild Rose is Recommended If You Like: Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Commitments, Sing Street

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stage Frights

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: ‘Paddington 2’ Sends Our Very Special Bear to Prison, But Truth, Common Decency, and Marmalade Prevail

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi

Director: Paul King

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG for Cheeky Humor and Threats of Violence Appeased by Marmalade

Release Date: January 12, 2018

The first Paddington film was a clear refugee allegory, with the titular “very special bear” (voiced then and now by Ben Whishaw) looking for a new home in England after his home in Peru is destroyed. The coded language about what happens to neighborhoods when bears move in was an obvious stand-in for how some actual Londoners (and other native residents around the globe) feel about the arrival of immigrants. Paddington 2 – in which the raincoat-sporting, marmalade-loving bear is imprisoned for grand theft despite his innocence – is not quite so stark in its messaging. It may have something to say about profiling, though Paddington’s wrongful arrest has more to do with misleading circumstantial evidence moreso than ungenerous assumptions about bearfolk. Still, for a family-friendly flick that distinguishes itself with a gentle touch, it is notable how much it does not hold back from some genuinely unsettling moments.

It all starts out pleasantly enough. Paddington, now living with the Brown family in London, wants to get his Aunt Lucy, the bear who raised him, a truly special present for her 100th birthday. He comes across a rare pop-up book in an antique shop, but it is a bit out of his price range, which is to say, he has no money (unless the Browns have been giving him an allowance). So he sets out to join the workforce, which begins with an abortive stint as a barbershop assistant (make sure to keep what appear to be narrative detours in mind, as these adventures are all intricately and carefully plotted) but then ultimately leads to an entrepreneurial effort as a window-washer. This segment is most memorable for Paddington’s improvising by rubbing the soap against the glass with his bum, which explains why this is rated PG and not G.

It gets a little scary from here on out, though. Considering the genre, there’s no need to worry that it will all descend into a bloodbath, but in the course of the narrative playing out, the danger does feel real, and fitfully intense. The main baddie is Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a washed-up actor who is now best known for appearing in hacky dog food commercials. He’s the real thief behind the crime Paddington has been charged with, a villain in the Scooby-Doo mold, though a tad more competent: awfully silly but a master of disguise and escape. Grant has a blast with all the dress-up and smoke-and-mirrors.

But the most worrisome threats come during Paddington’s prison stint. He runs afoul of Nuckles (Brendan Gleeson), the inmate assigned to cooking duties, who is legendary for dispensing with those who question his culinary decisions. It really does feel like Paddington is just one false move away from Nuckles beating him to a pulp. This is the neat trick that P2 pulls off. We really do believe that Paddington’s fellow inmates are capable of the crimes they are guilty of (though we would surely never see them happen in a film this), while simultaneously we believe that they would indeed befriend a fundamentally decent, very special bear.

Aesthetically, attention must also be paid to Paddington 2’s artful compositions. Director Paul King was no slouch in the first Paddington, with a whimsical architectural style indebted to Wes Anderson. This time around, he grows even more confident, assembling artfully arranged close-ups: single characters take up the ideal frame space and there is still an impressive amount of background information. London can be harsh, but the care apparent in Paddington 2 makes it much easier to bear.

Paddington 2 is Recommended If You Like: The first Paddington, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Family films that don’t hold back

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Marmalade Sandwiches


This Is a Movie Review: Old Hollywood and Working-Class England Come Into Each Other’s Orbit When ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave

Director: Paul McGuigan

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for Tenderly Shot Brief Nudity

Release Date: December 29, 2017 (Limited)

There’s something a little strange about that title, and it’s so small that you might not even notice it. It took a few weeks for it to even cross my mind. People frequently say “movie stars,” but who regularly says “film stars”? The title is the same as the memoir it’s based on, so I guess we have to pin this one on Peter Turner. Maybe it’s a British thing. But there is something appropriately spellbinding about this particular phrasing. “Film” is a traditionally more respectable term than the common and vulgar “movie,” so “film stars” has a way of lending gravitas to frivolousness. Such is the fate of big names whose times have passed them by like Gloria Grahame.

Grahame was, as one character put its, “a proper film star,” and as another clarifies, she “always played the tart.” She achieved fame in the late ’40s and early ’50s, primarily in noirs like The Big Heat and The Bad and the Beautiful (for which she won an Oscar). But as Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool opens, she is seeking stage work in London and looking for someone to take her disco dancing. Annette Bening acts the role with one layer upon another, wherein Grahame is always playing the part of the star in her day-to-day life. Or maybe a select few people really are just always that naturally alluring, i.e., they’re not really acting. Although, in a sense, everyone is always acting to some way, but perhaps with Grahame, her more outsize performances were much less of a put-on than the average person’s. Either way, into her orbit is drawn Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), and while their multiple decades age difference is a concern, it is no roadblock to genuine passion and affection.

Film Stars fundamentally tracks the importance of interpersonal acceptance. Gloria’s mother and sister are scandalized by her shacking up with a much younger man, while Peter’s family is there to take care of her when her cancer diagnosis becomes debilitating. But the greater struggle for acceptance is internal. Not only is it impossible for film stars to pass away in working-class English port towns, they cannot have diseases whose treatments are so aesthetically stripping. As Gloria comes to terms with her illness, the film takes on a woozy, dreamy quality. A humbling reality surrounds her, but a spectacular, star-making gaze is what she filters it through. It’s a little bit intoxicating.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is Recommended If You Like: Billy Elliot (for the sake of the Jame Bell/Julie Walters reunion), Being Julia, Sunset Blvd.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Magical Cancer Recoveries