Mary Poppins Returns – A Movie Review

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the original Mary Poppins from start to finish.  We had it on a few years ago for the kids, but I thought it was really strange and didn’t pay it much attention.  I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the character.

However, when we first started seeing the trailers for Mary Poppins Returns, my kids got very excited.  Frankly, I did, too.  I thought Disney really rolled the dice on trying to revitalize an iconic, beloved character that is deeply ingrained in many people’s psyche.  The willingness to risk financial failure on a venerated property shocked me.  And Emily Blunt?  Can you imagine the guts it takes to try to reprise such a famous role?  A role previously played by a revered actress?  Wow.

So even though I’m not necessarily a Mary Poppins fan, I have to confess that I had a great time watching Mary Poppins Returns.  I found it charming from start to finish.  It felt to me like a classic family movie–the kind of movie they don’t really make that often anymore.  I liked the message, the humor, the acting, the music, and the general creative direction.  In fact, we went with the grandparents and a great aunt, and they all loved it, too.

I’ve heard it argued that it just retreads the original movie.  Some have said it hits the same beats at almost the exact same cadence.  That may be true, but this movie isn’t made for the original fans of Mary Poppins.  This is a completely new experience to my six-year-old and ten-year-old.   Seeing it in a dark theater on the big screen with the loud speakers–this will be their Mary Poppins for life, and we need to realize that.  The same argument can actually be made for Star Wars.  Let the young have what we loved, too, but on their terms, in their own way.  It’s okay to borrow from what made the original a hit, and it’s okay to take things in a different direction as well.

By the way, I’d like to rave about Emily Blunt.  I adored her portrayal of Mary Poppins.  To me, her singing exceeded my expectations.  She sounded as good as anyone, in my opinion.  Furthermore, she had a sly glimmer in her eye that, for the first time, made me really consider the fact that Mary Poppins may be some kind of a supernatural entity–like a well-meaning fairy, or a helpful nymph, or maybe even a sort of angel.  She played the character incredibly stuffy, as the literary source material dictated, but she would at times offer a private grin, a lift of the eyebrows, or even a giant smile, that told me Emily Blunt is playing a character who is playing a character.  I think Mary Poppins’ whole persona is an act, and I loved that interpretation.  Though understated, Blunt’s execution of Poppins using exaggerated facial expressions and body language really struck me as funny.  She always held her hands just so.  The eyes would bulge indignantly just right.  I found the extrovert posing as a strict, prim, and proper snob totally engaging.

I’ve also heard some fans of the original movie claim that Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t have very catchy music.  Again, I’m no expert, but I thought it had excellent music.  My kids had me download the soundtrack which has resulted in several songs being stuck in my head.  Isn’t an earworm the sign of a good song?  Or at least a catchy one?

Finally, the production value of Mary Poppins Returns is phenomenal.  There are several instances when Mary Poppins and the children for whom she is responsible enter a world infused with cartoons.  The special effects are seamless.  I found it amazing to see the actors interacting with what appeared to be classic 2D images.  Of course, I could be mistaken.  Everything could have been CGI for all I know.  The point is that it looked beautiful.

Did the story make perfect sense?  No, not really, but who cares?  I’m not going to Mary Poppins Returns for a think-piece.  I’m going for the singing, the dancing, the humor, and the fact that it is a wholesome movie with a positive message for not just the children, but for everyone watching.

If you’re looking for a family movie, I completely recommend Mary Poppins Returns.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018) – A Movie Review

My wife and I took our daughters to see The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Friday night and I have to admit that I enjoyed it quite a bit.

I think the most striking aspect of this movie is that it looks exquisite.  The costumes, sets, and scenery are gorgeous.  It seemed to me that much of it featured real people on real sets.  There existed some CGI, of course, but generally speaking it appeared that the actors were interacting with actual props and materials.  The movie wielded a certain weight that many CGI-laden films do not.

Furthermore, I found the actors and actresses both capable and, more importantly, likable.  It’s hard not to like Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren, though, isn’t it?  Mackenzie Foy, who plays Clara, is easy to root for even while not being particularly charismatic, and her nutcracker captain, Phillip, played by Jayden Fowora-Knight, is also generically appealing if not particularly memorable.  I’d like to say, though, that I think both of these new faces have great potential.

Believe it or not, Sugar Plum stole this movie.  She crackled with electricity and proved very entertaining to watch.  Oddly enough, I couldn’t place her–I couldn’t figure out who played this fairy.  Imagine my surprise when the credits revealed Keira Knightly as Sugar Plum!   I think this is probably my favorite part ever played by Knightly.  I’ve never seen her so relaxed, magnetic, and … well, fun!

Best of all?  The ballet dancing!  It should come as no surprise that they included quite a bit of ballet in this film.  I found the inclusion of ballet inspired.  They didn’t just toss it in for the sake of throwing it in there–it serves a real purpose to the overall story and looks fantastic.

Again, the whole movie is really a sight to behold.  While the story is full of adventure and even a little creepy at times, it’s incredibly intricate at all levels.  Everything looks like a piece of art.

Both of my kids enjoyed The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, though neither of them were “wowed” by it.  Anytime we see a new movie, at least one of them usually says it’s their new favorite, but that didn’t happen this time.  I’m not really sure why.

In my opinion, you should certainly take your kids to see it.  It won’t make their hearts skip a beat, but it’s still a very well-crafted family film that will probably please everyone, albeit in different ways.

Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Richard E. Grant, Eugenio Derbez, Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Misty Copeland, and Jayden Fowora-Knight in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Christopher Robin – A Movie Review

I’ll be honest, when I first saw the trailer to this movie, I felt totally turned off.  It struck me as dark, dreary, and unnecessarily … adult.  Well, I’m happy to tell you that I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

Though we aren’t particularly big Winnie the Pooh fans, we like him well enough.  Once I heard good buzz about Christopher Robin and secured assurances from friends that it was an appropriate family film, I couldn’t wait to take my own kids.

I’m so glad I did.  The story is about a grownup Christopher Robin.  It has a charming beginning in which Christopher says goodbye to Pooh and his friends before he must head off to boarding school.  At boarding school, he learns to be efficient, serious, and unimaginative.  Once out of school, he has falls in love, goes to war, has a child, and now works in management for a luggage company.

Christopher Robin is an absolute bore.  He has forgotten how to enjoy life, and in doing so is missing out on the joy of his own wife and child.  As you guessed, Pooh and friends reenter his life, and from that moment forward a charming story ensues.

I won’t lie–I adore this movie.  As an adult, it provided some potent reminders about what is truly important in life.  And though it may have brought a tear to my eye here and there, it never struck me as overtly self-righteous.  It did not sermonize, lecture, or beat me over the head with its message.  It simply told a story, a story that even my nine-year-old could correctly interpret.

My children loved it because it was actually quite fun, cute, and upbeat.  Yes, the beginning is a little dour, but it’s all uphill from there.  Best of all?  Pooh and friends looked totally real.  I honestly couldn’t tell what was a puppet, what was a person in a suit, what was a robot, and what was CGI.  These old stuffed animals looked every bit the part, and as they walked and talked, it appeared natural in every respect.

On a deeply personal note, my six-year-old about made me start bawling in front of everyone.  As Christopher’s daughter was asking why he won’t go on trips with them and spend time with them, my daughter leaned over and whispered to me that she’s glad I take her places and spend time with her.  Crikey!  I about lost it.

I absolutely recommend this for the whole family.  It would make for a great last outing before school starts back up.  It helps that Ewan McGregor is about as likable as they come, as is Hayley Atwell, the electric actress who plays his wife.  And Pooh’s lines are so funny.  He’s truly a genius in the guise of a silly old bear.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

Traveling To Disney World: Family 2018 Disney World Vacation (Part 2)

Now that you’ve booked your trip to Disney World in Orlando, you need to actually get there.

Our daughters are both under ten, so driving from Central Illinois all the way to Orlando did not seem like the ideal means of travel to me.  We are very fortunate in that we have a local airport, Central Illinois Regional Airport, that flies to the Orlando/Sanford International Airport.  Using Allegiant Air, you can fly to Orlando/Sanford in about 2.5 hours.  That sure beats 20+ hours in the car.

I know flying can be expensive, but when you take into account the gas, the food, the hotels costs, and the incidentals of driving, flying seems far more convenient and not that much more expensive.  It was very nice to wake up in Illinois and go to bed in Florida.

A few words about Allegiant Air–yes, they had that scathing news report a few months ago.  We’ve flown Allegiant four times now in the last two years, and not once did I ever feel that our lives were endangered.  However, annoyances will arise with this airline.  They are a budget carrier, and it shows.  Three of the four times we flew with Allegiant, we had delays.  This is partly just air travel.  Everyone has delays.  One time, though, last summer, we were on the plane about to pull out three different times before they postponed the flight to the next day.  I’m talking we got on the plane, then we got off the plane.  Then we got on the plane, then we got off the plane.  Then–say it with me–we got on the plane, then we got off the plane.  My kids were great through the whole thing, but they were very confused.  The most irritating part about that ordeal is that it was impossible to reach their corporate headquarters.  I should say, though, that Allegiant put us in a nice hotel that night, and gave us each $100 vouchers with a one year expiration date.  We used those vouchers to offset the cost for this most recent trip!  I’d also like to say that all of the Allegiant employees we’ve dealt with have been very kind and professional.  Allegiant is not the most luxurious way to fly, but I certainly have no trepidation about getting on their planes.

Central Illinois Regional Airport is a dream.  It’s so clean and well-maintained.  The employees are very good there as well.  Orlando/Sanford International Airport is a little more dicey.  If you get there during off hours, it’s not bad at all.  However, it’s been packed to the gills each time we’ve been there.  It’s an international hub, so that stands to reason.  Once again, though, the employees were great.  I have a little inside information for you, by the way.  If you find yourself stuck in the Orlando/Sanford airport for any length of time, check out the international wing.  You walk down a long corridor before you enter it from the main wing.  It’s wide open with plenty of seating, plenty of shopping, plenty of restaurants, and big, clean bathrooms.  It looks much newer than the main part of the airport as well.

One more tip for flying with Allegiant.  Backpacks count as personal items, not carry-ons, as do purses.  To save money, I checked a suitcase, my wife checked a suitcase, and then our daughters shared a checked suitcase.  We did not use any carry-ons, but we each had a backpack for which we were not charged.  These personal items must fit under the airliner seat, though, so be sure to check your dimensions.

Okay, so we’ve made it to Orlando/Sanford International Airport–now how do we get to Disney World?  Ah, you’ve heard Disney runs a shuttle to Orlando International Airport, right?  Here’s the thing, Orlando/Sanford is not the same as Orlando International.  They are two different airports about forty minutes apart.  You’ve got some choices.  You can hire Lyft, Uber, or a taxi.  Lyft and Uber were out of the question for me–I’m not trusting a stranger to drive my family in Florida.  Taxis were about the same price as simply renting a car.  So … I rented a car.

I know what you’re thinking–“Scott, that’s crazy!  You rented a car just to sit in the parking lot of your resort!?”  Well, no.  We timed our flight so that it would arrive late Thursday evening.  We wanted to check in and hit Hollywood Studios right away Friday morning.  So, I rented a car from Alamo, which is a very short walk down a sidewalk outside of the Orlando/Sanford International Airport.  (Of course, I set all of this up ahead of time at the Alamo website.)  We rented a car, drove to a nearby hotel, spent the night, then drove to our resort first thing the next morning.  I parked at the resort, checked in the family, then left them to explore the resort as I returned the car at the Disney Car Care Center which has an Alamo onsite.  The Car Care Center is pretty much in the middle of the Walt Disney World grounds–it’s close to everything.  When I returned the car, I only had it for 24 hours–a one day rental.  (Actually, I only had it about 15 hours, but that’s okay.)  You see, this way you don’t have to pay a full week’s worth of car rental fees!  Great, right?  Best of all?  The Alamo at the Disney Car Care Center will shuttle you back to your resort.  In fact, they told me they’d take me anywhere I wanted to go as long as it was on Walt Disney World grounds.  Furthermore, they will also pick you up!  When it was time for us to leave, Alamo sent a shuttle for us, loaded up all of our luggage, and then drove us to the Disney Car Care Center in order to check out another car, which I then turned in to the Alamo at the Orlando/Sanford International Airport.  It’s a really fantastic service!

Of course, all of this requires careful planning.  You need to figure out what you need, communicate what you need, reserve what you need, and you need to keep all confirmation numbers on you.  I literally kept all of my confirmation papers in separate color-coded folders in my backpack with me–but I’m a little … you know.

And that’s how we got from Central Illinois to Walt Disney World and back!  Thanks for reading!

The next installment will arrive soon, and it will detail the resort we stayed at in 2017 and the resort we stayed at in 2018.  Hint: not all outlandishly expensive resorts on Walt Disney World grounds are created equal.

CIRA Airport 2018

(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

Beauty and the Beast (2017) – A Movie Review

I know we’re super late to this party, but we literally just watched this for the first time last night.  I’ve been after my daughters for months to view it with me, but they were hesitant.  They were concerned the Beast would be too scary, the wolves too vicious.

Well, within minutes, they were completely won over, and I was, too.

If you’ve seen the cartoon classic, you know the high notes of this film.  The songs are pretty much the same, the circumstances are pretty much the same.  Even with that being said, though, this movie delighted us from start to finish.

First of all, it’s charming. It’s just a charming movie.  Everyone oozes charisma, even Luke Evans as Gaston.  No one bored me; no one made me want the movie to keep moving on to the next scene.

Secondly, it made your eyes fall in love with every set.  There is so much to look at, and it’s all so intricate and, well, beautiful.  The art director of this film deserves a huge pat on the back.  I suspect I could watch this movie a dozen times and find something new in each scene, each time.  I love that kind of attention to detail.

I think the “look” of Beast is what ultimately made this movie so wonderful, though.  Yes, at times his body appeared fake and disconnected when shot as a whole, but his face more than made up for it.  They made his face so expressive and–believe it or not–kind, that we couldn’t help but cheer for him.  His face absolutely looked real, down to the smallest hair.  I will say, however, that they nailed the ballroom scene.  He looked grounded during that moment, with Belle clearly holding on to him and moving with him.  I’d love to watch the “behind the scenes” of that moment to learn how they pulled it off so well.

Of course, they also proved victorious with all of Beast’s “family” as well.  Cogsworth, Lumiere, Mrs. Potts, Chip–all of them!  They all moved with weight and fluidity.  Couple that fact with excellent voice acting and you’ve got a sublime experience.

Honestly, when I finished watching this I felt like I’d just watched an instant classic.  The songs were wonderful (with even a few new additions), the acting was charismatic across the board, the special effects were top-notch, the pacing moved quickly, and, best of all, it retained all of the magic and splendor of the original.  My kids immediately wanted to watch it again, which is the true test of a good family movie.  You can bet I’ll be sitting with them on that second viewing.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

 

 

Han Solo by Majorie Liu and Mark Brooks – A Book Review

As you know, Disney bought Marvel some time ago, and then Disney bought the Star Wars franchise as well, so it only makes sense that Marvel would return to publishing Star Wars comics.  I have to be honest, I’ve been pleased with virtually every title Marvel has released belonging to the Star Wars universe, and Han Solo is no exception.

This limited series takes place soon after the first destruction of the Death Star.  The premise is rather simple – Han takes on a mission given to him by Leia, whom he seemingly can’t refuse.  He is to rescue some embedded Rebel spies posing as Imperial loyalists.  A famous space race is due to occur near the very planets he is to rescue Leia’s agents, and so Han will use the race as a cover for his real mission.  There’s only one problem – one of those supposed Alliance members is actually a traitor, but they don’t know which one!

Han Solo offers no backstory concerning the icon.  It does not touch upon the origin of his friendship with Chewbacca.  In other words, it steers very clear of any meaty topics the impending movie will likely address.

However, that’s not to say the book is a failure or boring.  Quite the opposite!  In fact, I think this book does a wonderful job establishing an important shift in Han.

I just watched Episodes IV, V, and VI with my young daughters, and I noticed that Han went from being a snarky, selfish pirate to a loyal, selfless hero rather quickly.  Of course, those are movies and have to operate by a different standard of pacing, but when watched in succession it’s a bit jolting.

This series showcases the struggle taking place within Han Solo.  He grapples throughout the book not only with doing the right thing, but also with introspection concerning why he’s doing the right thing at all.  Best of all?  Like Huck Finn, Han has a habit of acting heroically when he doesn’t have time to think.  There is a heart of gold under all that scruffiness, and this book makes a point to shine a spotlight upon it.

Furthermore, we hear a lot in the movies about what a great pilot Han is.  This book takes that to heart while illustrating Han’s skill on multiple occasions.  The race, called the Dragon Void, is designed to disable, even injure, the participants, and so Han must outrace, out think, and outmaneuver his opponents, all while dealing with the Empire as well as a potential traitor on his own ship.

But he does this with his usual swagger, charm, and aloofness.  Han Solo will never stand up front and center and declare himself a hero; he will typically do the right thing while self-deprecating and playing up an aspect of reluctance.  Because of this, the book helps bridge the gap between Han Solo of Star Wars and Han Solo of The Empire Strikes Back.  It hints at the good man into which Han will evolve.

It also works to establish a bit more of Han and Leia’s relationship.  Neither of these two individuals are likely to throw themselves at someone, yet, honestly, the movies progress their relationship along at a pretty fast pace.  The book does an excellent job of inching their romance along, slowly, awkwardly, even confrontationally.  But, by story’s end, there is a spark, an acknowledgement that an epic love story is about to begin.

The art, by the way, is very good.  Mark Brooks has truly captured the characters’ likenesses from film without making them appear too rigid.  His spacecraft are fun while appearing consistent with established mythology and his aliens are varied and interesting.  Best of all, he conveys motion well, especially in regards to the race.  It’s very important that comic book artists are able to literally move a story along from panel to panel, and Brooks manages to service Liu’s pacing well.

If you’re a Star Wars or Han Solo fan, this book will not disappoint.  I know on the surface it seems a little superficial with the clichéd race plot, but Liu offers some deeply interesting characterization and motivation for Han Solo that only enriches the character and grounds his actions in the films.

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My Thoughts On Disney Buying Star Wars

When I read earlier today that Disney bought LucasFilm (and all properties therein) my first reaction was utter astonishment.  For one, the price is a number that my brain literally cannot conceive.   Secondly, never, ever, in a million years did I ever think George Lucas would relinquish the rights to the universe he built from scratch.

As a 35 year-old man who worshipped Star Wars as a kid, my second reaction may surprise you – it was relief.  Quite honestly, the Star Wars film franchise needs a shake-up.  I think we can all agree that the prequels, Episodes I-III, had some very special moments, but by and large they lacked the charisma of the original three.  Part of me thinks this may simply be attributed to the fact that I watched the originals as a child, and, frankly, everything was awesome to me as a child, but then I see movies even today that still fill me with a sense of awe and wonder, and I know it’s not just me.  I think Lucas lost his heart for the material somewhere along the way before making the prequels and it became more of a technical exercise than a story-telling experience.

And, judging from the sale, I think Lucas realized that fact as well.

On Disney’s part, it’s a no-brainer.  I can tell you firsthand that teenagers and young children still love Star Wars, mostly thanks to the video games and the animated television show.  This is still a thriving property and if you had the cash you’d be crazy not to make that kind of investment.

As an older guy, though, I am quite honestly excited to see what Disney does with the franchise.  The fact that they have their act together enough to get Episode VII out by 2015 gives me the chills.  But, I guess it should be said that I have faith that Disney will make a great Star Wars film.  In my mind, and I realize I’m in the minority, Disney excels at making science fiction films.  I never saw the original Tron, but I thought Tron: Legacy was a visual feast and it delivered a story and characters I was actually very invested in.  Though I knew nothing about John Carter of Mars, the sheer scale of that movie and the willingness to make it a true science fiction/fantasy film impressed me to no end.  And, really, when Disney gets behind the right director with the right project you end up with The Avengers, a movie that is still breaking records and, more importantly, entertains relentlessly.

I’m no Joss Whedon disciple (I was actually pretty concerned about his take on The Avengers early on), but we know this guy can do science fiction space films, we know he can do snappy banter, we know he’s good at finding actors with chemistry, and we know he knows his material and makes the movies he wants to make.  Imagine Joss Whedon on a film like Episode VII?  He proved to Disney he can make them tons of money with a top tier franchise film – does it get any bigger than Star Wars?

I’m excited about Star Wars for the first time in a long time.  Had any other company bought the rights, I don’t think I would feel this way, but Lucas knew he was handing his children off to an excellent caretaker, and I know it, too.  I can’t wait to see the expansion of this universe where the ending has not already been predetermined.  I’m looking forward to seeing this universe treated with both the respect and financial backing it deserves.  I am electrified that Star Wars will go back to being about story and characters first, and technological spectacle second.

May the force be with you.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)