‘Mary Poppins Returns’ falls short of practically perfect

Mary Poppins Returns

“Mary Poppins Returns” could just as easily be titled “Mary Poppins Remade.” That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but a movie that descends from the clouds with a huge gust of nostalgia behind it only sporadically conjures magic between the title character’s arrival and departure. The result is thus perfectly passable, but well short of practically perfect.

Disney, notably, is behaving as if it thinks otherwise, aggressively pushing the film for awards consideration — a strategy already validated by its Golden Globe nominations, exploiting that group’s traditional fondness for musicals. (Emily Blunt is also nominated for a SAG Award for her performance as Poppins.)

The sense of anticipation surrounding this 54-years-later sequel to a beloved family classic should pay off handsomely — spooning out the box-office sugar — while showcasing the considerable talents of Emily Blunt in the title role, and “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Nevertheless, once you get past the basic outline — Mary Poppins does indeed return, now that the Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer), have grown up — the allure of the exercise comes down to the quality of the songs and visual wonder. The former, alas, are generally lacking, and the latter tends to overplay its hand, including an extended animated sequence — with clever callbacks to the original — that seems to waddle around too long.

The story’s emotional hook comes from Michael, who is raising three children of his own, while wrestling with the pain of having lost his wife. As if that weren’t enough, the story unfolds during “the Great Slump,” a financial downturn that has put the Banks in danger of losing the family home unless they can locate their late father’s stock certificates to satisfy the lender.
“I can’t lose our home, Jane,” Michael frets.

That thread, however, is dangled and then dropped for long stretches, as Mary goes about bringing her special brand of nanny magic to her young charges. Like Julie Andrews before her (and not incidentally, even closer to the slightly darker stage version), her Mary is both mysterious and frequently exasperated, bringing an elfish charm to the festivities, and a fine voice to the music.

Mary Poppins Returns

Miranda, similarly, is no slouch, occupying what amounts to the Dick Van Dyke role as Mary’s cheerful sidekick in the kids’ fantastic adventures. That said, when the real Van Dyke shows up in what feels like a too-brief cameo, it provides the movie with an enormous jolt of energy that had been conspicuously lacking — so much so that you wish the actor and his fellow nonagenarian, Angela Lansbury, would hang around a bit longer.

Director Rob Marshall’s credits include the Oscar-winning “Chicago” and “Into the Woods,” so he’s no stranger to bringing musicals to the screen. In that regard, there’s something decidedly old-fashioned about “Mary Poppins Returns” and its unapologetic approach to the genre that many will find at the least comforting, and at best thrilling, if only to re-experience such entertainment with new generations on a big screen.

Disney, of course, has already unearthed plenty of gold from its vaults, reviving and remaking various family properties, which has included transforming animated classics into live-action extravaganzas.

“Mary Poppins Returns” is well worth seeing. But the live-action movies pose a somewhat more complicated challenge, one that even the title character — with all the tricks up her sleeve — can’t entirely pull off.

Elon Musk’s first tunnel is finished. Here’s what it’s like to ride in it

Elon Musk

Our Tesla Model X pulled into a small parking lot behind an old kitchen cabinet store and came to a stop on a metal lift. Moments later, Elon Musk’s vision for how to beat traffic congestion began to take shape.

The lift slowly lowered our car into O’Leary Station, a circular hole Musk’s Boring Company had dug in the parking lot in Hawthorne, California. A handful of company employees were gathered around the edge, watching our descent.

The lift settled at the bottom of the pit. Looking through the windshield, the other three journalists and I saw what we’d come for — Musk’s first tunnel, a 1.14-mile route built to experiment with underground transportation technology.

Musk, the CEO of Tesla (TSLA) and SpaceX, had previously described his tunnel business as a hobby that started as a joke.

In 2016, a frustrated Musk said he planned to start digging tunnels to provide an alternative to Los Angeles’ congested highways. Why sit in traffic above ground when you could speed ahead below it?

To mark the opening of the tunnel, Musk and the Boring Company threw a private party in the parking lot Tuesday night. It included a knight yelling insults, s’mores lit with flamethrowers and a speech from Musk. Aside from its quirky name and unusual job openings like “vice president of digital dancing,” the Boring Company is attempting serious projects in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington.

Musk’s ‘eureka moment’

Musk expressed confidence in the projects in a conversation with reporters Tuesday.

“For me it was a eureka moment,” he said of his first ride in the tunnel. “It was a epiphany, it’s going to damn well work.”

The initial tunnel cost about $10 million, not including the cost of the tunneling machine and research and development. Musk expects a 15-fold improvement in tunneling speed as the Boring Company improves its digging machines.

‘It’s hard to understand what’s real and what’s not’

Musk’s ambitious projects have left nearby residents unsure what to think. The developers of a condo building next door to the Washington site told CNN they’ve debated if they could advertise proximity to a future Boring Company station as a selling point. Ultimately, they decided to hold off formally promoting the station.

Elon Musk1

“It’s the kind of thing that feels so far fetched it’s hard to recognize it as an imminent reality,” said Brook Katzen, senior vice president of development at Urban Investment Partners. “We don’t want to sell homes based on a glimmer of hope.”

Musk presented an updated version of the Loop, the form of transportation he initially plans to use in the tunnels. The plan is to eventually shift some projects to Hyperloops, the high-speed capsule in a vacuum tube that Musk envisions whisking passengers from Washington to New York in 29 minutes.

For now, Musk is focused on the Loop in which autonomous electric vehicles, such as the Tesla Model 3 or the unreleased Model Y, would transport passengers. Private vehicles (not just Teslas) would also be allowed in Musk’s tunnels, provided they’re outfitted with deployable tracking wheels that rub against the walls to hold vehicles in place.

“This is not meant to be some walled garden or something that’s special just for Tesla,” Musk said.

Republicans question Lynch on Comey, tarmac meeting

tarmac meeting

House lawmakers on Wednesday questioned former Obama administration Attorney General Loretta Lynch over her tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to leave her out of his announcement on the Hillary Clinton email investigation, in what is likely to be the final interview of the Republican-led investigation into the FBI.

Lynch testified behind closed doors for nearly seven hours Wednesday before the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, where Republicans are probing the FBI’s actions during 2016 in the Clinton and Russia FBI probes. Leaving the interview, Democrats said there was nothing new to learn from Lynch, while Republicans pointed to her differences with Comey in the Clinton investigation and said there were still questions about her meeting with the former President in 2016.

“You might note she had not recused herself from the Hillary Clinton case, and yet we’re finding some very interesting things about his feeling that he didn’t have to inform her before, during or after he made the decision not to prosecute,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, a retiring California Republican. “There will be details in the transcript, but that’s an area I think of considerable interest just to get a feel for just how insubordinate Comey was during the Obama administration leading to his firing by President Trump.” Democrats said the Lynch interview was just one more attempt by Republicans to detract from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation before they lose power in the next Congress. The incoming chairmen of the two committees have made clear they won’t continue the FBI probe once they’re in control.

Mary Poppins Returns

“I think basically our Republican friends want to rehash issues that have already been resolved and investigated by the inspector general, and I think one of the greatest presents we could give the American people is by spending their dollars in a way that’s effective and efficient,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, who will chair the Oversight Committee next year, as he left the Lynch interview. Lynch’s interview was scheduled the same week that Comey concluded his testimony before the committees. Lynch and Comey are likely the last two witnesses that Republicans will call in their investigation, although some conservatives have pressed for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to still appear. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and the retiring Oversight Committee chairmen, suggested a Rosenstein interview wasn’t in the cards.

“If he is coming, I don’t know about it,” Gowdy said. Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, expressed frustration that Rosenstein wouldn’t have to testify. “I think he should have been here a long time ago,” Jordan told reporters. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.”

Gowdy would not say whether Republicans planned to issue any report or summary of their yearlong investigation, but he told reporters he hoped the transcripts of their interviews would be made public.Comey’s transcript was already released as part of a deal he struck with the committee for his closed-door testimony. Lawmakers said Lynch’s interview was less contentious than Comey, and she and her attorneys weren’t raising objections to questions like Comey did with certain topics. Issa said there were still questions over what happened with her tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton, suggesting that when Lynch met with him in 2016, Clinton could have helped the career of the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

Why there might not be another TV blockbuster like ‘Game of Thrones’

Game of Thrones

The final season of “Game of Thrones” isn’t airing until 2019, but the race is already underway to find the next king of television.

Streaming services, such as Netflix and Amazon, and more traditional networks like CBS, are spending millions of dollars to find the next series that will fill the giant hole “Game of Thrones” will leave behind. But they all may be chasing something increasingly elusive: a universal hit. When “Game of Thrones” premiered on HBO in 2011, it had far less competition — streaming services weren’t as popular as they are today.

“You’re trying to break through the clutter of 500 shows with one great show,” Michael Nathanson, media analyst and founding partner at MoffettNathanson told CNN Business. A hit show can lead to more subscribers and clout for the network, according to Nathanson.

“Game of Thrones'” engaging storytelling, immersive world and enormous production budget has led to 47 Emmys and big ratings (16.1 million watched last season’s finale). Viewers can now pick from hundreds of programs on cable and streaming services, so “Game of Thrones'” success is worth all the gold in Casterly Rock. HBO’s competitors have taken notice.

Amazon is bringing “Lord of the Rings” to the small screen for a reported price tag that could reach $500 million. One of Disney’s big bets for its new streaming service is a “Star Wars” series, which has a reported budget of roughly $100 million for 10 episodes. Both of those franchises have made billions at the box office, but the jury is still out on whether they can find that level of success on TV.

All Access, CBS’ streaming service, wants to make a name for itself with a “Twilight Zone” reboot from “Get Out” director, Jordan Peele, and a “Star Trek” series that has Patrick Stewart returning as Captain Picard. Both are beloved brands that have been around for decades, but it’s not yet clear if they can court a new generation of fans.

And HBO is future-proofing for its life after “Thrones” with its adaptation of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” which is one of the most critically praised graphic novels ever. The cable network is also hoping to stay in the “Game of Thrones” business after the show ends with a prequel based on the series. WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey has said HBO needs to substantially increase its subscriber base by creating more engaging content. (HBO, like CNN, is owned by WarnerMedia.)

Game of Thrones

“We need hours a day,” Stankey said in July about the time viewers spend watching HBO programming, according to the New York Times. “You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.” Streaming services are still gunning for that “one signature breakout hit,” but they will need a lot more content to keep a global audience engaged, according to Nathanson.

But volume alone isn’t enough. Stankey’s boss, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, has implied that prestige is an important factor for success. He knocked Netflix by comparing it to Walmart, while comparing HBO to Tiffany’s. Jill Rosengard Hill, an executive vice president at Magid, a research-based media firm, told CNN Business that the future of subscription TV will probably be a mix of quality and quantity.

“Streaming services need volume with both diverse originals and a large library of acquired shows and movies to give the consumer more bang for their subscription bucks,” she said.

Sonia Saraiya, TV critic at Vanity Fair, believes that HBO’s “Watchmen” may have the best shot at being the next big thing because it’s helmed by Damon Lindelof who has proven to be a good storyteller. He was a co-creator of “Lost” and already has “really successful source material.”

“My guess is that what makes something be the next ‘Game of Thrones’ is something that really goes in a totally different direction,” Saraiya said. “Like something that isn’t trying to recreate that success, but something that is going for a very clear and unique vision.”