February 5th, 2019

Mary Poppins Returns

On Sunday, December 30th, we went to see Mary Poppins Returns, the new Disney movie loosely based on the books by P.L. Travers. Mary Poppins Returns is even further removed than the 1964 film, since matters have been moved forward twenty years and a generation in time, so that the “Banks children” she nannies for are the sons and daughter of Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), one of Mary’s original charges. This time, it is not the children who are in disarray: it is Michael who is really in need of saving, since, due to the recent death of his wife (sigh—being a mother in a Disney movie is a job without a future, it seems--), he’s lost his grip on domestic affairs, including neglecting the mortgage payments to the point the family home is being foreclosed upon. Of course, there’s ultimately a happy ending, but with numerous of the typical Mary Poppins diversions along the way, beginning with bath time that becomes an ocean voyage.

One can’t help but make a point-by-point comparison between Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns, since they are so similar in structure, and some of the scenes and songs have pretty much direct analogues from one to the other.  The animated sequence in the first film, “Jolly Holiday” is echoed by “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” and “A Cover Is Not The Book” in the new film. Ironically, I thought that the animated animals (including de rigeur penguins) were more poorly done in the new film: by comparison with those from 1964, the new characters are flat and distorted.  In particular, the dog coachman is so bizarrely misshapen as to be disturbing.

Mary’s bath-time song “Can You Imagine That,” has the same function as “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Mary and the Banks children (Anabel, John, and Georgie, played by Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh) visit another one of Mary’s odd relatives, Topsy Turvy (Merle Streep!) and, instead of Uncle Albert’s “I Love to Laugh” song, get “Turning Turtle”, celebrating Cousin Topsy’s own odd condition. Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda) takes the place of Bert the chimney sweep, and the song and dance number “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” fills in for both “Chim-chim-cheree” and “Step in Time.” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is quite a fantastic production number, but somehow doesn’t affect me with the same anarchic, manic energy as “Step in Time,” which I still find astonishing.

That’s really the issue with much of the movie, which seems a paler iteration of the original. While Emily Blunt is a fine actress whom I admire, and sings prettily enough, her voice is not a match for Julie Andrews’ remarkable vocal instrument.  (She is very affecting singing “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” which does not have a counterpart from 1964, and which I found inexpressibly sad.)

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Mary, Queen of Scots

On Friday, January 11, we went to see the new movie, Mary, Queen of Scots, which is very loosely based on the life of the unhappy Queen. The movie stars Saoirse Ronan as Mary, and Margot Robbie as her cousin Elizabeth I of England. Unlike other stories about Mary, as, for example, the plot of Donizetti’s opera, or Schiller’s play, the movie plot focuses on the period from Mary’s return to Scotland after being widowed to her eventual flight from Scotland into England and the dubious sanctuary provided by Elizabeth.

Mary returns to Scotland after the death of her French husband to claim the throne of Scotland, a move that is unpopular with Scotland’s Protestant population. (John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland (played here by David Tennant) is one of the Queen’s most vehement critics.) Her imperious ruling style soon makes her politically unpopular as well, and, when she dismisses her half-brother, James, Earl of Murray, who had been her regent, from her council, an insurrection follows.  That the insurrection was partially funded (according to the movie) by Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State (Thom Petty), in the cause of destabilizing Mary’s reign.  He hardly needed to, since the Scots prove perfectly capable of intrigue, murder, and treason on their own.

The climax of the movie is the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth (generally believed to be apocryphal--), wherein Mary seals her fate by telling Elizabeth, “I will not be scolded by an inferior,” to which Elizabeth prophesies that Mary’s strengths, including her beauty and her courage, will be her downfall. This, of course, proved true as Mary’s beauty and “romantic” situation kept drawing would-be champions out of the woodwork, a situation Elizabeth could not tolerate, and which led to Mary’s eventual condemnation.  Her courage makes sure she continues to be headstrong and heedless of consequences. Ms. Ronan plays the mercurial character with appropriate drive and energy.

The treatment of Elizabeth is handled interestingly. Usually, she is portrayed as confident and the master of most situations, as in the movies starring Cate Blanchett. Here, she is more insecure, and worried by Mary’s competition, not only as a rival for the throne of England, but as a woman. Rather than rely on femininity to preserve her crown, as Mary has tried and failed to do, she says that she has “become a man.”

While some of the ahistorical aspects of the film (notably Elizabeth’s accelerated aging compared with everyone else in the film) it’s entertaining and good to look at. (Some of the design aspects are interesting: for all we see of Scotland, it’s entirely wilderness except for a couple of castles. Parts of what is supposedly Holyrood House, the Scots royal palace, are shown with rough rock walls, as though it were part cave.

Conclusion: Enjoyable if you are not a historical purist.

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Milwaukee Symphony, Der Fliegende Hollander

On Sunday, January 13th, we went to the Marcus Center to hear the Milwaukee Symphony’s concert presentation of Richard Wagner’s opera, Der Fliegende Hollander, as conducted by Maestro Edo de Waart. We enjoyed this performance very much.

Unlike prior opera performances, this one was not “semi-staged,” although the principal singers did use movement, gesture, and interaction in presenting their roles, and there were constantly shifting atmospheric projected images on two sail-like screens suspended over the orchestra.

The singing was very fine. Ryan McKinney in the role of The Dutchman, Melody Moore as Senta, Peter Rose as Daland, and A. J. Glueckert as Erik were all excellent, as were supporting principals, and the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus.

Maestro de Waart on the podium was not flashy, but conducted the music and singing flawlessly. For me, just hearing the wonderful overture, which begins with the dramatic “Dutchman” theme, and ends on the same note of poignant longing that ends the opera, was worth the price of admission alone, and the rest of the performance was equally good.

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