A Critique of Critics: When a Rotten Movie is Fresh

When completing my recent review for Glass I glanced at its Rotten Tomatoes page. I’d enjoyed the movie, but acknowledged it had some pacing flaws. I also knew it hadn’t received great reviews. So I went to Rotten Tomatoes expecting a Critics’ Approval score somewhere in the 60% range. What number did I actually see?: 37%.

37% –that’s not merely a disappointing grade: that’s well into F territory. Now in fairness, Rotten Tomatoes percentages are simply based on counts of positive and negative reviews: a film that gets all Cs might thus get an F score (and a film that get’s all B-minuses an A+). Still, given its creativity and positive qualities it surprised me that Glass could fall so low on the Tomato Meter.

It is not Glass, however, that drove my recent frustration with critics. That honor falls to a movie called Serenity (Serenity gets a 21% Rotten Tomatoes score from critics). When I saw Serenity I did not particularly want to review it. Fishing is a major motif in the film, and I wish filmmakers didn’t regularly bombard us with casual images of this violent activity.

Still, I found it an overall well executed piece of filmmaking. Serenity is the story of  fishing-boat captain Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) whose stubborn obsession with catching a single Tuna (who he names “Justice”) undermines his business prospects and adds further scruff to his already prickly persona. My feelings about the fish motif aside, this is a good literary starting point: one that invokes Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea. The film then follows Dill’s attempts to understand why he can’t relate to the townsfolk, as well as his relationship with his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathway). Midway through, the film’s tone is changed as it is overtaken by a supernatural aura.

Between its charismatic personas, provocatively short and mysterious character interactions and rainbow-pallet visuals, Serenity left me fully engaged. As a film reviewer I try to be insightful, but my ultimate task in recommending films is to tell you if I enjoyed what I saw. The overall sense of enjoyment I derived from seeing Serenity was unmistakable.

Do I have such an unusual mindset that I experience film fundamentally differently from the vast majority of critics? Possibly, but I have a hard time believing that’s true. Therefore I can’t but speculate that many professional critics have lost their way: that some have become so obsessed with their personal systems for categorizing and evaluating films that they lose sight of whether on an instinctual level they enjoy what they saw.

In his critique in The New Yorker, Richard Brody bemoans the plethora of clichés in Serenity. Brody is not wrong to notice this trait, but to me this kind of criticism seems to be derived from a pre-conceived philosophy of criticism (ie denouncing clichéd writing) rather than from direct engagement with the film at hand. Yes, the characters surrounding Dill, particularly Karen’s violently misogynistic husband Frank (Jason Clarke) are flat, but when one realizes the film’s twist, this flatness makes perfect sense. If anything, what’s questionable is the inclusion of one non-flat character in addition to Dill: his first-mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou).*

Brody is of course not the only writer to have written a damning review of Serenity, and in his defence, he at least maintains a measure of eloquence. Robert Ebert reviewer Christy Lemire writes “Serenity” is terrible and insane, and will surely end up being one of the worst films of 2019.” The more interesting problem with Lemire’s critique comes out in one of her better written lines, however. Lemire accuses writer/director Steven Knight of orchestrating a plot twist in which “he partially pulls the rug out from underneath us about halfway through, then yanks the whole thing out by the end, then waves the rug around in the air as if to joyfully shout: “Ha! This is the rug you were standing on! See? It’s not underneath you anymore!” Lemire is right in this observation, but like Brody she seems so preoccupied with the existence of what in theory sounds like a flaw, that it makes me wonder whether she was really attuned to the film she was watching. Yes the movie’s twist is revealed early on, and there is the odd-line in the script that feels repetitive as a result, but this revelation doesn’t harm the film’s overall feel. The twist’s early revelation doesn’t immediately save Baker Dill from his deep disorientation and doubt, allowing the film to remain engaging for its whole run time.

With or without its twist, Serenity is a film that holds onto a suspenseful, mysterious aura. It’s also a thematically interesting piece, though Richard Brody, with his focus on the overt toxic-masculinity of Frank doesn’t seem to appreciate that. The film is not really about Frank’s over the top flaws. Rather it’s about Baker, who in his Hemingway-esque pursuit of Justice, displays a subtler form of toxic masculinity: one that he is forced to examine as he grasps to preserve a relationship with his far-away son. The masculinity of the son is in turn a relevant, if somewhat mysterious theme.

My problem with critics is not limited to their context-free obsession with their pet issues. I’m also put off by their general comfort with negativity. Observer reviewer Rex Reed gave the film 0/4. Again, it baffles me how often critics feel comfortable giving such low scores. In many school systems 49% is a failing grade, and grades well above 49 still indicate deep concern on a teacher’s part about a students progress.

In Reed’s case, it can at least be said that he commits to his cartoonishly low grade writing:  “The result is a sub-mental waste of time and Diane Lane. The early months of every year are always devoted to the trash Hollywood couldn’t dump in the plethora of Oscar contenders the year before. One expects junk in January. It’s a rule. But it is rare to pull any junk movie from the gutter as spectacularly stupid as Serenity.” Let me say it again. I enjoyed Serenity. I enjoyed it despite wishing one of its key themes (fishing) wasn’t there. And I enjoyed it despite its starting at 11:00 at night: making it highly probable that I would fall asleep in the theatre. Can I believe you liked this film less than me, Rex Reed? Of course. Can I believe that what for me was an 8-or-9 out of 10 experience was for you a zero? Not really, unless I factor in that the very culture of film criticism may incentivize condescension and hyperbolic negativity.

Passionate as this article is, I put it forward modestly. I don’t claim to have the film expertise of many professional critics. Nonetheless, when one’s perception of reality clashes so fundamentally with that of a whole industry, it may be worth questioning whether the industry has systematic problems. I can’t read minds and can’t tell you what individual critics are thinking. If you are a critic, however, I implore that you maintain (what I will assume is your current) commitment to reviewing films sincerely and reserving excessive criticism for when such harshness is actually morally justified.

 

*If you want to see my (inevitably spoiler-implying) theory as to why Duke is not a flat character see bellow:

DUKE IS THE EQUIVALENT OF THIS CHARACTER

 

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Glass (2019)

Written and Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

 

Spoiler Alert: I cannot talk about Glass without giving away elements of the two films it builds upon Unbreakable and Split. Both are worth watching if one intends to appreciate Glass.

 

 

Glass_official_theatrical_poster                When I heard M. Night Shyamalan had plans to write a joint sequel to Unbreakable and Split I was concerned. While Shyamalan is one of my favourite filmmakers, I had admittedly only seen his better reviewed films, and realized he is a subject of frequent panning. Given the general concern of sequels being profit-and-or-vanity-projects I feared this proposed sequel would undermine his previous work.

I need not have worried. Just as Shyamalan was able to pay homage to the superhero movie in Unbreakable by creating something that didn’t feel at all like a clichéd superhero movie, Glass in no way feels like your typical superhero movie sequel. The path for this film was set nineteen years ago when Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) closed Unbreakable by revealing his identity. Great as that ending was, Shyamalan must have realized that in ending his film with a mere idea, he failed to turn that idea into a story. That’s what Glass is: that story.

[Here’s where spoilers really kick in] Mr. Glass, Unbreakable fans will recall is a super-villain who both does and doesn’t see him that way. Driven to make superheroes a reality, Mr. Glass acts as a super-villain in order to attract potential superheroes his way. He thus sees himself as a sort of Judas figure: someone who is tasked with committing evil as part of a supposedly justifiable bigger project. Mr. Glass of course acted on this goal in Unbreakable, but because he succeeded in provoking the rise of a superhero, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) he is not able to directly express his worldview much as shortly after his identity is revealed, Dunn sees to it that he is arrested.

Glass, however, gives its co-protagonist a chance to meaningfully express himself through interacting with the others. The film re-introduces both David Dunn and Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy) from Split. Crumb is just one identity of a many-identitied person (collectively known as “The Horde”), and because a small minority of these identities are sinister (particularly one called “The Beast”), Crumb effectively functions as a super-villain. Dunn and Crumb are sent to a psychiatric facility where they are told they are delusional about their super-powered identities by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). By bringing the authoritative Mr. Glass and the collectively-confused Horde together, the film allows Glass to expressively live in his vision as a mentor figure. David Dunn is similarly made deeper through the presence of the other characters. While he doesn’t react with them as directly, his co-detention with the violent pair puts him on a path of painful introspection. While I can’t say much more without spoiling the film, its explorations of its three leads allows Glass to feels like missing puzzle piece for what turns out was an emotional gap left by its predecessors.

Shyamalan can be a slow-moving storyteller, who seems to find joy in his shots of mundane Philadelphia scenery. Shyamalan’s pace means that Glass‘s seven main-ish characters  don’t all get well developed. This is a mild problem for the portrayal of Split character Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), and is more striking for Joseph Dunn (Spencer Treat Clarke) whose mid-film bursts of emotion set viewers up to expect more development of his character than they ultimately get. Time constraints may also explain the difference in Kevin’s portrayal between Split and Glass. In Split Kevin maintains single identities for prolonged periods, whereas in Glass he barrels through them. There are of course possible explanations for this. One is that he transitions between identities more following the emergence of The Beast at the end of Split. Alternatively, he may transition more frequently when under stress. Finally, the portrayal of Kevin as quickly shifting through-identities may be an attempt to truly distinguish his comic-book-esque persona from real people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (Shyamalan’s attempt in Split to simultaneously celebrate neurodiversity, while also giving Kevin a cartoonish dark-side led to some concern that he was further stigmatizing D.I.D., even as he  largely portrayed Kevin in a sympathetic light). While this updated version of Kevin is still an interesting character, and the change doesn’t undermine Glass as a standalone work, this transformation nonetheless appears to be a casualty of the film’s time limits.

Shyamalan’s pacing also doesn’t mix well with his desire for big twist endings. It is understandable why some critics and viewers might have found the film as a whole frustrating or its ending excessive. If one approaches Glass, however, as a fan of Unbreakable and Split, it is an overall joy to watch and has a cathartic ending. Glass resonates with inventiveness, darkness and empathy, rendering its current low Rotten Tomatoes (critics’) score a cruel injustice.

Vice (2018)

Written and Directed by: Adam McKay

 

Vice_(2018_film_poster)                 Call me cynical, but my guess is that Vice is one of this year’s nominees for best picture because it’s about a popular news/historical topic and came out at the right time of year. That’s what I think, and I don’t think that’s a radical statement. That said, that is the most cynical thing you’ll read in this review. Vice may me unsubtle Oscar Bait, but given the overall thrill it was to watch I suspect it will hold up as one of the better works from that tradition.

Vice makes semi-regular usage of a critical narrator and title cards. In its opening moment we barely see its subject, Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) speak at all. This creates the impression that one is watching a Michael Moore documentary. While this impression quickly fades, it is indicative of Vice’s broader ambitions. Sure, for the most part it’s a mainstream biopic, but Adam McKay was clearly inspired in creating this work and was willing to employ a nice dose of fourth-wall breaking tongue and cheek.

When the Michael Moore moment ends, the story really begins. We are introduced to a young Cheney who is presented as academically incompetent and rough around the edges (A bit of a surprise given that one might assume it was these very traits in George W. Bush that Cheney sought to make up for). We are also introduced to his future wife Lynne (Amy Adams). In an early monologue, Lynne is about as expository as can be, explaining that she is an intellectually savvy woman who nonetheless needs Dick to get his act together, as 1960s patriarchal culture prevented women from getting too far in life. In defence of this scene, it does make a point about Lynne’s (and the general women’s) experience in the 1960s that might fly over many viewers heads. Nonetheless, it’s indicative of the film’s biggest weakness: its choppy, episodic presentation of history that is rendered wooden through its lack of subtlety.

Early in the movie I noticed its writing problem and began to think of ways in which Vice could have been made better. Dick’s hard-living-manchild beginnings reminded me Daniel Plainview from There Will be Blood and Esteban Trueba from Isabel Allende’s novel The House of Spirits. Both are characters that embody a self-serving, reactionary masculinity that is presented as rising from an Americana-coming-of-age pathway. Perhaps a more emotionally resonant story about Cheney could have been developed if the filmmaker had committed to this kind of narrative.

Alternatively, the peculiarity of Dick and Lynne as a couple could also have provided the foundation for a well-written, character-oriented story. In fairness, Vice does not miss the mark on this plot by too much, which is why I was able to observe its potential in the first place. But in essence, Dick and Lynne appear to have an egalitarian relationship and a share commitment to political action. The resemblance between them and the Clintons is striking. This resemblance left me wondering why they (especially Lynne) came to adopt a colder, less nuanced and less cosmopolitan ideology than their fellow political power couple.

Perhaps Vice would have been stronger if it focused on one of the above paths, instead of plowing through Cheney’s life with a dearth of exposition. That said, I regularly find myself disappointed with biopics for attempting to stretch the stories of people into feature-length films where source material is lacking. The great (or rather terrifying) thing about Cheney is that there’s no lack of material. As I watched the film my attitude evolved from: 1) this isn’t that great to 2) ok, this should be a classic teaching-tool in high school history classes to 3) that was a pretty striking film. So, for example, one might be frustrated by the rushed depiction of Cheney’s falling for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrel), but by the time the latter man leaves the film the relationship more than leaves it mark.

Vice ultimately accomplishes a lot of things. It notes the peculiarity of Cheney as someone who avoided the limelight but craved the opportunity to quietly assert his will (one can debate whether the roots of this tendency are adequately portrayed or not). It also portrays how his political schemes were products of both legally dubious behaviour, and sinister attempts to act within the law (taking advantage of constitutional laws theoretical flexibility). Where possible the film opts for comedy. George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) isn’t in the film as much as one might want, but his portrayal as a hapless puppet of Cheney and his father is certainly amusing. That said, the film does not miss the chance to criticize those to Cheney’s left. It depicts the brutal impact of US militarism on Iraqis and briefly draws attention to the way liberals Hilary Rodham Clinton and Tony Blair advanced Cheney’s war propaganda.

Vice serves as an important reminder that the cruelty of American politics runs deeper than Trump’s particular brand of callousness. And as a film it may not be perfect, but its engaging up to and including its M Night Shyamalan-esque ending. So why not give this film a chance and recall just how terrifying the supposedly powerless vice president can be.

Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman Written by: Phil Lord and Rothman

spider-man_into_the_spider-verse_(2018_poster)When I went to see Into the Spider-verse I didn’t realize that it was produced in part by The Lego Movie creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. But when the names rolled at the film’s end, I was not surprised. Superhero movies, for the most part, have a certain tone to them: its hard to describe, because while the word serious doesn’t feel quite right (many have wisecracking protagonists and rely on varying degrees of physical humor), Into the Spider-verse undoubtedly exposed that there was an element of fun lacking in today’s live-action, standard fare. In the tradition of The Lego Movie, Into the Spider-Verse found this fun, but it managed to do so while never feeling out of place in the world of superhero films. Also, unlike the fellow convention-breaking work Deadpool, Into the Spider-verse pokes fun at the tone of superhero films, while still being a work that can be enjoyed by superhero fans of all ages.

The film is largely the story of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Morales debuted in Marvel comics only a few years, making waves as the first person of color to be a Spider-Man alter ego. When I first heard of his creation I had mixed feelings about the idea. On the one hand, having an Afro-Latin Spiderman did feel like an important piece of the representation. On the other hand, Peter Parker was already Spiderman, and doing representation via an already established figure felt like a dead end (at the time I figured it would be a better idea to hire a black actor to play Peter Parker in future film iterations). Into the Spider-Verse, however, solves that problem, and the fact that chose to solve that problem is part of what makes it a good movie. Unlike Peter, who, despite supposedly being a geek, quickly had to take on the burden of embodying one of the most iconic superheroes ever, Miles is given the chance to have a more natural coming of age story. When he is first introduced we see that he feels awkward about going to an “elitist” school, awkward about being academically successful and awkward about having a cop (Brian Tyree Henry) for a father (details that go under-examined: perhaps because they are too radical to fit into the film’s primarily plot direction). When he does acquire powers, he struggles to figure out how to use them, thus allowing the film to get a richer blend of an action and comedy than do some other superhero flicks. While, unfortunately, Miles does eventually master his (perhaps too-strong-skillset), for much of the film he is an engaging protagonist because his weakness is his greatest strength.

Another contrast between Into the Spider-Verse and other superhero films is its non-preoccupation with villain origin stories. While generally I would view this as a negative (I don’t like the idea of presenting people as “good” or “evil”), this approach allows Into the Spider-Verse to reinvigorate the humor of cartoon superhero-supervillain fights that are lost in live action films. Into the Spider-Verse’s  scenes with Doctor Octopus are particularly amusing.

Into-the-Spiderverse does admittedly include one particularly morally ambiguous character, and the absence of screentime devoted to this character’s origin story is frustrating. Nonetheless, I found the writing around this character clever as well. The film sets viewers up to anticipate a plot-twist in which this character is revealed as a villain. The trick is really on the viewers, however, because this supposed “plot-twist” is revealed quite early on in the film, setting up a more subtle twist: that this character will be the equivalent of an iconic figure from Peter Parker’s life.

If there’s a downside to Into the Spider-Verse, it’s that its selling-point itself (the inclusion of many incarnations of Spiderman) is not that great. While the Miles Morales-Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) relationship is well done, the film doesn’t quite know what to do with the other Spideys. This is largely because three of them are comedic, radical-re-imagining of the character: meaning they can’t be major players, despite being too essential to the film’s construction to be thrown in-and-out as quick gags. Lord noted in an interview that at one point he felt the film needed ten more versions of Spiderman, but ultimately decided that would be too ambitious. Perhaps he’s right. Still, I would have found Spiderman-Noir (Nicolas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn)and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) (who, no, unfortunately, is not a reference to The Simpson’s Movie) far funnier if they had appeared only after long sequences featuring more subtle variances on the Spiderman personality (also, I think the idea that there’s both an Amazing Spiderman and Ultimate Spiderman is far worthier of parody than the idea that there are some comic adaptations of the character out there). Finally, after The Lego Movie and even Deadpool 2, the gag of including an absurd collection of heroes in a single movie isn’t as funny as it once was (and it doesn’t fit as well in this film as it did in The Lego Movie, as the earlier piece is not a mere story but a celebration of the idea of free-play).

Into-the Spider-Verse offers a lot of things for a lot of people. For those weary of action it is a well paced coming of age story. For those who like cartoons and comics it is marks a rebirth for the two mediums. And for Spiderman film and comic nerds, the film is supposedly rife with references, some of which I didn’t appreciate. As for all other viewers, its harder to pinpoint exactly what’s great about Into the Spider-Verse, but there’s clearly something in its pacing, story and-or-sense of humor that pushes it over the edge. So give it a try, and don’t get fooled as I did by the gosh-darned movie theater turning the lights on: there supposedly is some great after-credits material as well!

 

Aquaman (2018)

Directed by: James Wan Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beal

aquaman_poster“Everything’s better down where it’s wetter,” sings Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid. While the crustacean may not have realized it, his words were anticipating Aquaman the latest release in the new DC Comics cinematic universe. Going into Aquman I’d long been frustrated with the notion of the 3-D movie. In my ideal world 3-D would be an occasional novelty: an effect that would make the rare movie special. Unfortunately, in our free market society, once someone adopts a marketable innovation, everyone’s got to do it. Now I’m regularly stuck going to 3-D movies, and I regularly don’t care: I often cease to remember the effect is there a couple of frames in. Aquaman, with its repeated dives into shimmering depths, is a work that, for once, made me appreciate the 3-D experience. So I suppose credit should be given to director James Wan and his technical team for making this uniquely beautiful superhero movie. But, to go back to our friend Sebastian, there is undoubtedly something innately majestic about water itself: a colorless substance that mysteriously adopts blues and greens into its sparkling, viscous matrix. Aquman takes this natural canvas and paints ecosystems both biological and fantastical. To top things off, Aquman also sometimes breaks the surface, presenting viewers with pristine seaside sunsets, and a pinch of a Wes Anderson-esque boat scene.

I’ve repeatedly heard that the D.C universe has failed to live up to the standards set by its Marvel rivals. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest Marvel fan and, outside of Wonder Woman, I haven’t given D.C. much of a shot. So while, I cannot comment on whether this trend continues, I can make two relevant points.

Firstly while Aquman’s shortcomings as a script are apparent, it nonetheless offers a sensory experience that should keep many happily in the theater. I speak primarily, of course, of its aquatic visuals, however, I also found its combat scenes enjoyable as well. Aquman (Jason Momoa) and his rival King Orm (Patrick Wilson), wear shimmering outfits that make them look uniquely like action figures (particularly two (unrelated) figures I grew up). This, and the fact that they fight with tridents and bodies (not bullets), gave me a degree of investment in their fights I might not have felt in another superhero movie piece. Perhaps there was something appealing about the intimacy of the combat style, and/or perhaps it tapped into my memories of making my action figures fight as a child.

The other is that Aquaman resembles, and falls short of the standards sets by two of Marvel’s other creations: Black Panther (without the politics) and Thor. Aquaman is  a half-surface-dwelling, half-Atlantean person, who is called by his supporters in Atlantis to challenge his half brother Orm for the Atlantean throne. The film thus resembles Black Panther in that it depicts an isolated society that, despite looking down on the technological backwardness of others, maintains an oddly violent and autocratic system of governance (Aquaman’s Atlantis, however, lacks the generally peaceful and redeeming air of Black Panther’s Wakanda). The film, meanwhile, resembles Thor in that it’s about a struggle between two brothers, torn apart via issues with their parental lineages, struggling for control of a mythological kingdom.

Aquman doesn’t quite hold the candle to these two franchises, however. This is partially because both of the aforementioned movies are defined by their having memorable central-antagonists. Thor’s Loki built a fan-base on his being an anti-hero more than a villain, and ultimately embracing his identity as the Norse god of mischief. He exists to be a memorable member of the Marvel universe in his own right, and not merely a source of darkness for Thor to vanquish. Black Panther’s villain, meanwhile, is also unique in that he is not simply morally complex, but in fact completes a yin-yang relationship with Black Panther: both, it becomes apparent, must learn from the other.

While King Orm is not uncomplicated, he is denied the depth of Loki and Killmonger, due to Aquaman’s general paint by numbers approach. The film never digs deep into its sibling conflict or its environmentalist themes, because it seems these details are only their to check off boxes: villain origin story (check), motivation for civilizational conflict (check), a mentor character who vaguely resembles Forest Whitaker’s character from Black Panther (played in this case by Willem Defoe) (check), a love-interest for Aquaman who also fights, so she’s not a dated-damsel-in-distress trope (played by Amber Heard) (check) . The underdevelopment of these various plot elements is accented by unsubtle dialogue. The script throws in a number of shockingly abrupt conversations that spell out exactly where the plot is going.  

That said, there is one part of the film that did resonate with me on an emotional level. Fairly early on we are introduced to Aquman’s arch nemesis-Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) when he is a mere pirate working with his father (Micheal Beach). Though the characters are portrayed as violent villains, the relationship between Black Manta and his father is undeniably tender. The tenderness, however, is so well portrayed that it felt frustrating that it was not elaborated on. There is no doubt we can expect a future movie which will build on the Black Manta story-line since, in this film, he is abruptly pushed aside to allow Orm to serve as the primary villain. I thus suppose I’ll have reserve my judgement of that particular character arc for the future. In short, the portrayal of Manta and his father is simultaneously satisfying and frustrating, and makes me wish superhero filmmakers were more concerned with producing individually, excellent movies rather than simply building franchises.

In the long run I won’t remember Aquaman as one of my favorite movies of 2018. Nonetheless, it provides excellent reason to go to the theaters. Aquaman offers a rare chance to be excited about putting on those 3-D glasses: so go ahead, your adventure awaits “Under the Sea.”  

 

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.

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.