Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Directed by: Rob Marshall Written by: David Magee Music by: Marc Shaiman

220px-mary_poppins_returns_(2018_film_poster)“The cover is not the book” sing Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) in Disney’s latest release. For me there was a pleasant irony to this Supercalifragilisticexpialodocious-esque number: this was a film I’d nearly dismissed due to its trailer.

Let me explain. The trailer I saw for the film seemed to present is at the story of a disillusioned Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) who has become a serious and strict father. This prompts Mary Poppins to return to his life and reteach him the lesson he learned as a child in the original Mary Poppins film. This was the premise of an earlier 2018 release, Christopher Robin, and that film thoroughly irked me. Christopher Robin treated its protagonist as essentially a shell with a brand name. This new Christopher Robin  seemed entirely unshaped by his childhood relationship with Winnie the Pooh, and instead embodied a generic maturity allowing him to learn a generic lesson over the course of the film.

Mary Poppins Returns almost tells that same story: but not quite. On the one hand the film is undoubtedly a product of Disney’s current remake era. In many ways it is not a novel film concept, bot a high-tech remake of the original movie. Like the original film it pits kids, Mary and Jack (a character who is Bert in all but name) against the worlds of adulthood and banking. The film’s songs too feel like they were designed to be equivalents of tunes in the original (“Imagine That” is “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Turning Turtle” is “I Love to Laugh” and so on).

But much like Incredibles 2, Mary Poppins Returns shows that a sequel can be enjoyable, regardless of how “original it is” so long as it is made with heart. This heart rings out in the opening scene where Jack cycles through the Mary Poppins set singing “Lovely London Sky,” a moment that evokes the mood of returning to a school/community/etc. after a time off and taking in the familiar faces and places. More importantly, the commitment of the writers to coming out with a genuinely good script is made plain in their depiction of Michael Banks. The adult Michael may have much in common with the adult Christopher Robin, but unlike the other characters, he genuinely appears to be a mature version of his previous iteration  and not a generic-overworked-father-figure. Michael, in this story, does not simply have a generic office/bank job. Rather, he has such a job to support his true career as an artist. This allows for nuance in his relationship with his children. He is not a grownup who has forgotten how to be friendly and have fun: instead he’s someone whose experience with adulthood has simply pressured him in the direction of forgetting how to be friendly and have fun.

Mary Poppins is a uniquely contradictory figure: she speaks of proprietary, manners and sensibility, all the while showing the children she cares for her nonsensical world. In Mary Poppins Returns, this personality is made to fit into a broader dualistic worldview. Through characters like Bert and Jack the Mary Poppins series on the one hand can be said to be telling the working class to be happy with their lot in life: just like these jolly figures. Yet Mary Poppins returns, through its presentation of Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) as a union organizer makes clear that it does not have this reactionary intent. Instead what it is saying is that one should both push for a better world, but before one has it, one should also use one’s imagination to find beauty. This worldview is also expressed in the film’s relationship to the imaginary. Michael and Jane are convinced that the more magical parts of their Mary Poppins memories  (yes, their shared memories) are fabricated, a view that they absurdly hold onto when Mary Poppins returns into their lives. Yet this approach to the imaginary is a useful, if not entirely accurate representation of actual human existence. Children, for instance, can get deeply into playing pretend games while still knowing their games are make believe. The film implies that adults can have a similar worldview: engaging maturely with the world should not preclude one from having an imagination.

Perhaps some will find fault in Mary Poppins Returns not bringing forward enough novel material. In terms of the film’s actual content, however, there’s little to complain about. It brings forward all one could expect in song-and-dance pizazz and use of traditional and modern animation technique. So don’t be put off by any bad trailer you may have seen. I promise, the trailer is not the film.

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The Babadook (2014)

Written and directed by: Jennifer Kent 

the-babadook-posterDespite liking what I’ve seen of “highbrow-horror” so far, I only recently got the chance to see one of the “new” “genre’s” defining films: The Babadook.  Through the bizarre workings of the internet, The Babadook remained in the spotlight well beyond its release date: its titular monster having been declared a gay icon, a development that has little to nothing to do with its portrayal in the film.

 

So what is the Babadook if not the second coming of Doctor Frankenfurter? In a way it is still a somewhat eccentric horror entity: a fairly harmless looking character from a black-and-white, pop up children’s book. When I first saw the character I grew excited, eagerly wondering how it would be brought to life? For a second I thought I was watching a more serious rendition of the Spongebob Squarepants episode “Frankendoodle.”

 

Unfortunately, The Babadook is not quite that innovative. Like other films in the highbrow-horror genre, rather, it is a film that derives its horror from the relationship between its human protagonists, between them and the Babadook’s invisible, ominous presence. This is also the approach exhibited in It Comes at Night.

 

I enjoyed The Babadook, but a tad less than It Comes at Night. My dissatisfaction was subtle. I found the film engaging and was compelled by the struggles of its protagonists Amelia (Essie Davis) and Samuel (Noah Wiseman) with a society that is horribly callous in its inability to handle an imaginative and/or disturbed young child. Nonetheless, while watching The Babadook, I also felt a degree of the dissatisfaction I felt while watching Hereditary. In my experience, good horror films take an idea and run with it. The monster/horror will have an innate characteristic that follows the protagonists from start to resolution.  The Babadook, by contrast seems to simply throw a number of horrors at its heroes, without a unifying logic. The film’s monster does not seem to have any meaningful identity: it certainly wasn’t as the top-hat wearing, fuzzy creature it is initially presented as.

 

 I came to realize my disappointment with the film largely stems from the fact that I expected it to be about a monster. Like It Comes at Night it wasn’t, well not really. Why did this fairly common twist make sense to me in It Comes at Night but not The Babadook. I suppose its because The Babadook was about suppressed human monstrosity. It Comes at Night, may be more about human monstosity than a literal monster, but the human monstrosity in that case was too overt for it to feel like a cruel twist when brought to light.  To re-iterate my point using an entirely different example: I couldn’t stand that Home Alone ends with Kevin feeling he has to apologize to a family that blatantly ignores/mistreats him. In a similar vein, it irritates me that the end of The Babadook subtly validates the obnoxious behavior of Samuel’s Aunt (I can’t explain what I mean unfortunately without spoiling the movie).

 

The Babadook holds up as a strong representative of contemporary horror film-making. I’m not sure how universal my issues with it will prove to be, but they are small ones. So just don’t go into it expecting a gay-cult-thriller or a remake of Frankentoon . Horror fan or not, you should enjoy yourself.

Love & Mercy (2014)

Directed by: Bill Pohlad Written by: Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman

love_&_mercy_(poster)I recently had the chance to re-watch one of the film’s that ignited my current passion in going to the cinema: 2014/15 release Love & Mercy. The film tells the story of Beach Boys bassist, falsetto singer, pianist and songwriter Brian Wilson, and played a key role in my coming to understand the band’s music . Going into the film, the Beach Boys held a weird dualistic place in my musical consciousness. On the one hand I saw them as the American equivalent of the Beatles in that they were an iconic band from rock-and-roll’s second generation. On the other hand, it was hard to make the Beatles comparison too strongly given that John, Paul, George and Ringo were experimental and whimsical, whereas the Beach Boys just seemed to churn out a plethora of tunes about surfboards and cars.
Whenever a biopic comes out I’m instantly hit with a mixed reaction. I both feel an instant skepticism about its quality and potential to entertain: and also a strong desire to see it (sorry critics, you can’t deter me from seeing Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell play Cheney and Bush). Nonetheless, Love and Mercy has held up as one of my favorite films. A big reason for this is that it really feels like it teaches a history lesson. Do you feel that the Beach Boys legacy is limited by the fact that they wrote about surfing too much? Guess who agrees? The musically-experimental, non-surfer, Brian Wilson.
Seeing Love &Mercy opened my mind to the brilliance of Pet Sounds as an album, highlighting its thematic distinctness from the band’s earlier catalogue and showing just how much musical vision had to go into constructing its sounds. That the Beach Boys put out musically innovative work, however, is not the full extent of Love & Mercy’s message. One of the film’s interesting choices was casting two Brian Wilsons. Paul Dano plays him in his heyday, while John Cusack plays him as a middle-aged man struggling with mental illness. While some have been quick to criticize Cusack’s non-resemblance to  Dano or Wilson, I find the use of the two actors has a very satisfying effect. The boyish Dano captures Wilson the legend. Cusack’s distinct appearance represents how far the legend has drifted. Perhaps you are familiar with a Simpson’s episode in which the family meets a bulky, white man who claims to be Michael Jackson and charms the family into wanting to believe him, absurd as the claim is. Cucack’s Wilson captures the appeal of this Simpson’s episode and transposes it into a sombre context. Car salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) is shocked that the friendly but peculiar man she’s dealing with is really rock and roll legend Brian Wilson, but unlike the Simpson’s character, he most definitely is.
The film’s portrayal of Wilson also emphasizes another of The Beach Boys’ innate contradictions: the man who’s name is most synonymous with the band (he was even the primary writer on the band’s 2012 reunion album That’s Why God Made the Radio) is the one who drifted away from his Beach Boy identity and felt most alienated from the group all along.
Not everyone whose face looks good on a movie poster is necessarily good source material for making a movie. Brian Wilson’s story, however, is unknown, tragic and fascinating. Love & Mercy shares it and captivates with both its visuals and storytelling. It may not tell all of Wilson’s tale, but its portrayal of the individual story of innovation and struggle that underlined the output of an iconic band is an undeniable service to popular music history.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Written and directed by: Barry Jenkins

Based on a Novel by James Baldwin

if_beale_street_could_talk_filmBarry Jenkins can probably be said to have picked up the reputation of being an “issues” director. His breakout film, Moonlight dealt with homophobia in a poor, black community. This follow-up film deals with the consequences of police racism. But as the title of Moonlight suggests, Jenkins does not want his social commentary to be the sole defining feature of his legacy: he is also committed to beauty.  Aesthetically, If Beale Street Could Talk takes off where Moonlight left off employing a sparse but resonant classical soundtrack to accompany shots that, at times, slow the story down to capture graceful and provocative movement.

 

Another common element of If Beale Street Could Talk and Moonlight is that both address racism without really bringing the (white) antagonists into the picture. If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of an arrest, by showing the interactions it produces in and around the film’s black community. If Beale Street Could Talk admittedly ventures outside of the black community more often than Moonlight, but then again, it also more directly about racism than Jenkins’ previous work.

 

Therefore, hile I wouldn’t call If Beale Street Could Talk a subtle film (all the political points it wants to make are directly stated), it nonetheless is a film that strives to present issues as they actually happen, and not polish them up for the Hollywood gaze. Rather than telling a flowing, linear narrative, Jenkins tells of protagonist Kiki(Nikki Layne) and her fiancé Fonny, through a series of non-chronologically ordered memories. One, a conversation about incarceration between Fonny and his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), feels particularly extended. The film’s story does not allow for Daniel and Fonny to spend much time together, but when it does, Jenkins’ seeks to emphasize the power of the moment.

 

If Beale Street Could Talk thus achieves one of the aesthetics I personally most like in film: it feels like a diorama with a memorable collection of moving pieces. A number of these pieces are brought into the story relatively briefly. The brevity of their appearances is not due to the roles being cameos, nor can it be described as an oversight on Jenkins’ part. Instead it is a representation of how striking figures can come into ones life and, due to unjust complications (ie arrests), unceremoniously disappear from sight.

 

Occasionally Jenkins’ moving-pieces approach comes at the expense of the quality of his screenplay. There’s one vignette that seems to exist to show the hope in Black-Jewish solidarity. The scene has funny moments, and it was a pleasant surprise to see the actor who’s cameo it was. Nonetheless, the scene’s political point felt a bit forced, due to its being brought in so quickly and tangentially to the main plot.

 

I have not read James Baldwin’s novel, so I cannot say with certainty what truly were Jenkins’ choices. That said, what seems to be an interesting quality of the film is that it presents itself as a grandiose narrative: an epic Hollywood mystery that seeks to unravel an overwhelming injustice in the court system. Given this set up,  the very end of the film comes as a surprise. It’s a surprise that feels awkward at first, but since the film’s very point is that the justice system so often reaches unsatisfying conclusions, this awkwardness feels perfectly justified.

 

Speaking now, its hard to say exactly what the legacy of If Beale Street Could Talk will be. I suppose it can be said its about a slightly less novel topic than Moonlight, and it also lacks a single scene that is quite the equal of Moonlight’s best (ie the one where Juan explains the fa-word to Chiron). That said, as a piece of art and a piece of storytelling, If Beale Street Could Talk is overall Moonlight’s equal, and a good sign that Barry Jenkins is an auteur here to stay.

The Favorite (2018)

Directed by: Yorgios Lanthimos Written by: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara

 

Tthe_favourite[1]he Favorite is at least the second film of the year in which a rising auteur attempted to put their stamp on a script they did not write. While First Man was a blatantly questionable vessel for Damien Chazelle to invest his talents in, the match between The Favorite and Yorgios Lanthamos is a good one. While the film marks a break from the extreme-deadpan approach he used in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it’s nonetheless a work that includes Lanthimos’ signatures of provocatively placed  violence and black comedy.

 

Well, that’s the impression one gets from the film’s trailer.

 

The trailer presents The Favorite as a film all dressed up in the pomp of British period dramas, that nonetheless goes entirely off the rails.

 

In the trailer, the off the rails moment comes with roar of a single gun shot. When watched in the context of the whole film, however, this scene is not nearly as powerful. It does not mark a break from realism, nor does any one moment in The Favorite.

 

The film’s script essentially tells the tale of a battle for power between an established, aristocratic Lady in Waiting (Rachel Weisz) and her new, more class-ambiguous rival (Emma Stone), taking place while England under Queen Anne is fighting France in the War of the Spanish Succession. Entertaining as this premise might be if presented as a short story, the film’s run time drains it of energy and keeps it within the confines of realism. This is not to say the film is bereft of eccentric moments. Its early scenes, which introduce the characters, have a degree of quirky charm to them (especially the bit witht he ducks). The Queen (Olivia Coleman), is also one of the film’s strengths. She is eccentric in ways that subvert expectations, and her insistence on making policy decisions despite not engaging in political thinking provides for some comic skewering of monarchism.
Viewers attuned to the subtle qualities of directors may find something of Lanthimos in The Favorite. Be warned, however, if you are not at least equally motivated by the prospect of seeing 17th century characters discuss slow moving military and court politics as you are by the prospect of seeing Lanthimos’s sinister artistry, this is not necessarily the film for you.

Burning (2018)

Directed by: Lee Chang-dong Written by: Lee and Oh Jung-mi

Based on the novel Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami

burning[1]I suppose there were three reason that I went to see Burning. One is that it’s based on a work by an acclaimed novelist, Harukami Murakami (whose work I have admittedly not read). Another is that as a fan of sorry to bother you I wanted to see Steven Yeun in another acting role. Finally, the film’s trailer drew my attention to it’s scenic aesthetic.

 

Having seen the film I’ll concede that its aesthetic charm holds up. Its narrative, however, was not quite the aesthetic’s equal. As the film opens it introduces us to its protagonist Lee Jong-Su (Yoo Ah-in) and his love interest Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) meeting for lunch. There’s a light-surreal quality to this moment as she discusses and displays her interest in theatre and her plan to go train in Africa.  When she does go away, the film opens up a number of interesting plot points including; Jong-su’s having to take care of Hae-mi’s seemingly invisible cat, his managing of his father’s farm, and his response to his father’s legal problems.

 

The film’s main plot only resumes however when Hae-mi returns accompanied by a new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun–who has seemingly been typecast, in two languages, as the other man). From here the plot comes to focus on Jong-su’s jealousy towards Ben, who he fears is seducing Hae-mi.

 

At one point,  Jong-su compares Ben to the Great Gatsby. While admittedly, I may be missing Seoul/Korean specific cultural signifiers, this comparison can be read as having either surreal or exagerated qualities. Ben is undoubtedly rather comfortable for someone of his age, with no clear profession, but he shows no signs of Gatsbyesque excess. But even if one reads surrealism into the Gatsby interpretation, it can only do so much to breathe life into the film’s narrative.

 

In its second half Burning essentially becomes a tale of male rivalry and jealousy. Hae-min, a charismatic and engaging character when introduced, becomes nothing more than the subject of their dispute. It’s telling that one of the films most memorable scene features her dancing against a sunset while perfectly matched jazz music plays in the background. Aesthetically strong as the scene is, it also features Hae-min dancing without her shirt off. While it’s hard to be too critical of this moment given that it allows for Jong-su’s slut-shaming tendencies to be critiqued, it nonetheless feels disappointing that this expressive character’s last big moment seems to be crafted in the interest of the male gaze.
As I’ve suggested Burning makes enough nods to the surreal that it’s possible to see it as more than a story of macho jealousy. Is Boil the cat real? Is Ben really Gatsby? How accurate is Jong-su’s perception of reality? I, however, did not find these questions proved prominent in the second half, as a film that once seemed rife with subplots became narrowly focused. Perhaps Jong-su’s father-storyline does get to play out through Jong-su’s own transformation. Perhaps, but to me this connection was too subtle to be effective. Burning is not unenjoyable, but its abandonment of its own ambition is unexplainable and disappointing.

Border (2018)

Directed by: Ali Abassi Written by: Abassi, Isabella Eklöf and John Ajvide Lindqvist

Based on a novel by: John Ajvide Lindqvist

border_(2018_film)[1]Border has a misleading title. Given our social contact, one might think it was the story of an immigrant. It’s not: in fact it’s the story of a border guard. It is not however, a story from the opposite political perspective: some sort of Trumpian ode to the nobility of borders. Rather, the film is an example of a piece with bait and switch branding. “The border” serves as a key setting for the film, but it’s really more of a metaphor in a story that does not deal with immigration-status issues at all.

 

Border is based on a novel. I’ve been told by someone who read it that the film holds up, even when one knows its plot in advance. From my perspective, however, this film was best enjoyed as a series of surprises. You think it’s about borders and injustice: it’s not. You think it’s about a border-guard: it’s not.  You think it’s about “ugliness”: well, I can’t say more than that.

 

The initial set up and initial satisfaction of border is as an indie-movie. We don’t see any dramatic scenes in the intiial depiction of the protagonist’s, Tina’s (Eva Melander), border work. She scolds a teenager about sneaking in alcohol, that’s it.  Slowly we’re exposed to her struggles, her home life living with a dog (fighting?) trainer (Jörgen Thorsson), her relationship with her father (Sten Ljunggren)  who lives in a retirement home, etc.

 

The film eventually evolves into a crime story, and then something else more dramatic-still. It nonetheless, never loses its indie feel. In fact, it’s more peculiar elements are well accented by the ordinary world within which they exist.

 

Overall Border has just enough simplicity too it that it can be described positively as a sort of fairy tale. Objectively speaking it is an excellent work: simple enough to vividly remember, aesthetically engaging, and rich with a range of scene dynamics. If I had any qualms with Border its in its approach to expressing its theme. Tina lives on a social
border” where she feels at odds with and/or mistreated by a number of social elements. The result is that the film ends with her distancing herself from two important players in her life. While Tina’s reaction makes sense given the serious wrongs both of these figures have committed, it seems a bit of a shame that the film’s conception of Tina’s existence on the border is one in which she’s condemned to be alienated rather than one from which she can use her perspective to bridge social divides. That said, this is admittedly a philosophical quibble. It does not take away from the fact that Border  is undoubtedly one of the most engaging, thought provoking and well-made releases of 2018.