Mary Poppins Returns (19 December 2018)

Before seeing the film, my friend and I discussed some of our favorite classic movie musicals; Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins itself. Mary Poppins Returns absolutely captures the spirit of a classic movie musical, and makes for an incredibly engaging sequel, albeit one released 54 years after its predecessor.

The film itself takes place a generation after the events of Mary Poppins (1964). The children from the first film, Jane and Michael, are grown up. Michael has three children of his own (Anabel, John and Georgie). Michael and the new Banks children, along with maid Ellen, reside in the Banks house, a house currently feeling the absence of Michael’s wife after her death about a year ago. The children have had to grow up significantly to care for their bereaved and flighty father, ‘little grown-ups” as Ellen says, and then it comes to light that the family is set to lose their house. This final crisis is what prompts Mary Poppins to arrive.

It’s not a delightful premise for a film, but the delight and magic are derived not from the situations at hand, but how the characters react to them. The film begins with lamplighter Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda as a working-class Bert stand-in toting a slightly better accent than Van Dyke) singing about the “lovely London sky,” a statement that has rarely if ever been objectively true– but he sings it in such an earnest fashion that it’s obvious he really believes it, and in experiencing his optimism, the viewer becomes somewhat optimistic as well. Jack’s optimism remains a guiding force in the film– Mary Poppins focuses more on getting things done, in whatever manner is necessary, even sometimes bordering on cruel. Jack, however, lights the way for the other characters in the film, and believes in them all earnestly and without question, just as he believes that the world is at its heart a beautiful place. His presence occasionally comes off as overbearing, but it’s necessary to the film and to the world in which it is set.

Mary Poppins takes the children and the viewers into a delightful world of imagination and resilience through some breathtaking musical numbers– first emerged in a bathtub to a fantastic ocean, and then to a world within a porcelain bowl, in a long and gorgeous 2D animation sequence, some of the most beautiful animation that has been on the big screen in recent years. The film’s musical numbers aid the film in combining whimsy and reality to make for a lovely adventure.

Although the film’s internal conflict is about coping with grief, its external conflict focuses on working class individuals and labor organizers uniting against bank owners. This is a classic conflict that never fails to hold up in film. Although many struggles are overcome in this film, it does seem necessary to have an external struggle parallel the internal ones, and that’s one reason a malicious, pocket watch-twiddling banker is so important. The struggle  to avoid foreclosure provides the excuse for the personal growth that occurs in the film, and it’s a compelling and classic struggle indeed.

Poppins doesn’t always hit its mark. There’s a lengthy scene and musical number involving Meryl Streep as Poppins’s Cousin Topsy that leans heavily into (not entirely flattering) Romani stereotypes, and the whole scene feels a bit contrived and unnecessary, an excuse to utilize Streep in a film. At times in the film, one gets the impression that musical numbers were written first and the plot had to be hammered into a certain mold. Certain moments feel jarring, when one is lifted out of the magic of the film to feel somewhat uncomfortable. This is mostly a testament, however, to how engaging and immersive the film is overall (although, I truly cannot stress enough how much the film could and should do without Streep’s entire scene and number).

In the middle of a very cold winter such as this one, I feel that many people are in need of some extra magic, and Mary Poppins Returns delivers that. This film’s magic, however, is made arguably more powerful than the original Mary Poppins, due to the fact that it comes amidst sadness, grief and loneliness. Even the finale, as heart-lifting as it is, carries an underlying current of melancholy. These emotions do not diminish the magic, but make it more powerful; even amongst struggles and heartbreak, whimsy and magic can be found and embraced. This is an important message, perhaps now more than ever, and the film and its musical numbers are sure to remain near and dear to many hearts for years to come.

The Favourite (21 December 2018)

The latest film from director Yorgos Lanthimos, the man behind The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer, is slightly less surreal than his other films, which could be ascribed partly to its historical setting and partly to having separate screenwriters. A film many years in the making (Deborah Davis first penned the script two decades ago), The Favourite transports the viewer to 18th century England. The film is far more concerned with telling a compelling story than with historical facts, but because its colorful characters are so compelling, it never feels artificial or inauthentic.

The film takes place in an England at war with the French. Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) is a physically and emotionally fragile monarch who deeply desires the approval of her subjects and confidantes. She relies heavily on her advisor Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), whom she has known since childhood, both personally and professionally. Sarah is unapologetically blunt and brilliant. She does not so much advise Queen Anne as instruct her, making decisions about battles to be had and money to be spent. Although the palace is far from calm and quiet– separate political parties vie for power, with differing opinions about the best way to handle the war and the debts it is accruing– it seems that there is a stability of sorts, a balance that has been achieved.

This balance is disrupted with the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), a cousin of Sarah’s, fallen from noble status due to her father’s choices. Abigail arrives to the castle covered in mud but bright-eyed, described by Sarah at one point as “too kind for [her] own good.” She begins her time in a grueling position as a chambermaid, but before long falls into the queen’s good graces.

One is not always sure where the motivations of the characters lie. For at least the first half of the film, the viewer may find themself looking for the subtlest of cues to hint at where Sarah and Abigail’s loyalties and aspirations lie– are wide eyes due to horror, or the arrival of an opportunity? Is a smile from satisfaction with a plan going correctly, or from genuine joy? As the loyalties of characters shift consistently through the film, the viewer may find that their loyalties and sympathies shift as well. At times this feels dizzying, but it’s exhilarating to be sure.

It is refreshing to see a film written by a woman, that centers on the dynamics between three women who are each powerful in different ways. The actresses are all incredible, in their individual scenes but also in the ways in which they interact with one another, flowing in and out of one another’s favor depending on the scene. One finds themself looking at Stone and Weisz carefully, examining their expressions for any hints of actions yet to come. Each character is compelling, and at least at times sympathetic, especially Coleman’s unstable Queen Anne. There are of course men in the film, but usually they play a secondary part, utilized in one way or another by the intelligent female characters, or entangled in the plots of the women in one way or another. This is a refreshing change from so much of how women and men are portrayed on screen, and it’s managed to be done in a way that doesn’t feel at all out of place in a historical setting.

The film is aided by its score and soundtrack, similar to that found in other films by Yorgos Lanthimos– Organs boom, strings swell regally, or vibrate rapidly. The strings are especially evocative, aiding often to eerie discomfort that is present in so many scenes– the source of which is often not entirely clear.

The film excels at inciting discomfort. Often, scenes that leave the viewer incredibly tense end only in a release of breath, whereas tense and disturbing moments often seem to strike the viewer out of nowhere. It is without a doubt an unsettling film, but manages to also be at times hilarious– there were multiple moments in which the theater was filled with laughter. Often the disturbing moments manage to coincide with the humour, and it is perhaps the way in which the film leaves the viewer continuously slightly on edge and disarmed that allows it to be as funny as it is.

The plot twists and turns in unnerving, intriguing ways, many of which I would love to discuss on paper but fear spoiling even the slightest of twists. The film is worth seeing, especially for those who are fans of Lanthimos’s earlier works. Even those who felt alienated or too thrown off by those earlier works may find The Favourite more palatable, more grounded. At its center, this is a film about the relationships between women, both to one another and to the society in which they exist.

A Note From The Author:

When I started writing reviews, I couldn’t figure out when, if at all, to mention the state of my mental health. Was I clever enough to somehow work it into weekly reviews? The answer to that is a decided “no”, and so here we are. I probably won’t include after-thoughts such as this one every week, but I think that there are some things worth talking about.

I think I mentioned in my introductory post that this project would be a good way of holding me accountable for plans and making sure I got out of the apartment, and this was absolutely true this week. Even the fact that I had made plans with someone might not have been enough to get me out– even as I went out the door I was tempted to cancel. I felt like I was crumbling all day, and the thought of walking, and talking to someone, and driving, sounded paralyzing. Knowing that I had to see a movie this week, however, was just enough to get me moving.

Aquaman (21 December 2018)

I had the opportunity to see Aquaman with my father while he was in town, adding to the long list of superhero movies the two of us have seen together. He’s the one who got me into comic books, and has therefore been my favorite superhero-movie-buddy for the majority of my life. Having seen so many superhero movies, I can say that Aquaman falls squarely in the middle in terms of quality. It overtakes the majority of DC films since 2013 (Wonder Woman being the exception, in my opinion) but falls short of some of the recent superhero-based films.

While Aquaman  is the hero’s first standalone film, it benefits from having already established him and his powers in the previous Justice League (2017), both in-universe and to viewers. Therefore, exposition can be cut down to only what furthers the plot of this specific film, and the film is able to reach a little past the “coming to terms with superhero identity” that others feel compelled to include.

When the film opens, one might worry for a moment that it will be too similar to its Zack Snyder-directed predecessors– against a palate of greys, a woman (Atlanna, played by Nicole Kidman) is splayed dramatically on the rocks as waves crash against her. However, it quickly becomes clear that this dramatacism is tongue-in-cheek, and although the film does continue to be melodramatic (“in the ocean, the sea carries our tears away”), it also includes genuinely fun fight scenes– hand-to-hand combat is used, along with weapons such as tridents and spears, and later on, seahorse steeds. The movie can be a bit over the top, but it acknowledges and embraces that. It isn’t worried about making sense– when underwater, the film doesn’t try to include telepathic communication, instead just having the characters speak to one another as if they’re on land. In all honesty,  having a film that allows itself to be silly in this universe is refreshing after some of Snyder’s films.

The premise of the film isn’t groundbreaking– Arthur Curry, dubbed Aquaman by the media, must learn to reconcile is on-land upbringing with his Atlantean heritage and prevent an uprising against land-dwellers, who have been polluting the ocean and killings its creatures for many years. The uprising is to be lead by Aquaman’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), a smug blonde much more interested in power than any real justice against the humans on land. The sea-dwelling Mera (Amber Heard, sporting a painfully bright red wig) goes against her people to assist Aquaman, although it’s obvious that she’s the far more competent individual. Heard’s acting occasionally comes off as stiff, but nonetheless she’s a literal and figurative bright spot in the film, an independent, intelligent and strong person who, very honestly, probably puts too much stock in Aquaman and his ability to unite the worlds of land and sea. Nonetheless, it’s engaging to watch her fight the foot soldiers of Atlantis (wearing suits that are a hybrid of Power Rangers and Bionicles), pilot undersea ships, and experience land for the first time.

Another character that breathes life into the film is Black Manta (a compellingly charismatic Yahya Abdul-Manteen II). Watching this character rise from modern pirate to supervillain, driven by understandable grief and a desire for revenge, is some of the most fun I’ve had watching any comic book character come to life on the screen. Abdul-Manteen II does a fantastic job with this character, and it’s a shame this film doesn’t do more with him. The film’s version of this character alone is enough to hope for a sequel.

The film contains some delightful visuals that become more bright and compelling as the film progresses. CGI is utilized well for some fantastic scenes, especially late in the film– The Trench is the first that comes to mind. Species of humanoid seafolk are well-designed in this film, and through short shots of various royals, the viewer does get a good feel for the varying cultures of different undersea societies. The film’s costume design also helps with this; Atlantean foot soldiers aside, the characters are fitted with a diverse range of clothes and costumes that bring the universe to life.
Aquaman isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a fun one, with a coherent plot and competent cast. It contains several staple elements of superhero films, and although it doesn’t add anything innovative or groundbreaking to the genre, director James Wan has added an enjoyable entry to a the list of superhero films.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (14 December 2018)

Early on in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, main character Miles Morales, aided by his Uncle Aaron (the Oscar-Winning and excellent Mahershala Ali), creates a wall-spanning piece of graffiti art containing the words “No Expectations”, a play on Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a book being read at Morales’s school. While it sets the tone for Morales’s character, it’s also something the reader should keep in mind– since the web of parallel universes and compelling characters go in so many directions anyway, it is best to go into the film without expectations one way or the other, and to let oneself be carried in the +many directions the film takes. Into the Spider-Verse is electric and dynamic, a wonderful ride of a feature. From the moment the opening credits begin, it is immediately immersive, with intense beats and bright colors that dash across the screen. Movies based on comic books are frequent, but rarely are they able to so artfully give the viewer the feeling of being transported directly onto the pages of the medium. This is just one way that the film benefits from its animated format.

The witty web-slinger has graced the big screen nine times in the past 17 years, so viewers are familiar with Peter Parker’s origin story and personality, a fact the film quickly and humorously references. However, Miles Morales is a generally lesser-known iteration of Spider-Man. Created in 2011 by the comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, Morales is a Brooklyn teen with an African-American father (voiced in the film by Brian Tyree Henry, who gave a performance that brought me to tears) and Hispanic mother. Morales really feels like the kind of teen one would meet in Brooklyn. He sings along to excellent music in his room, gets embarrassed by his policeman father, tries to impress girls (such as classmate “Gwanda,” voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) and worries about finding an identity and place in the world, especially after being forced by his parents to attend a private school instead of his former public school. Relative newcomer Shameik Moore does a fantastic job at portraying an authentic, kind-hearted, bright and occasionally awkward teenager. The tone of the film changes greatly, often from scene to scene, but Moore makes sure we never feel jerked around. He keeps the film squarely grounded in humanity, even as it swings us through the trials and tribulations of a superhuman universe.

Spider-Man has often been a hero strongly tied to tales of coming of age and finding one’s identity, and this film doesn’t stray from that template. Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider (neon and stunningly psychedelic) while in the subway creating graffiti art with his uncle, one of the few adults in his life with whom he feels safe. After discovering, and struggling with, newfound spider abilities, he returns to the scene, only to find his universe’s original Spider-Man in a struggle with Kingpin, who is attempting to access parallel universes. Morales is tasked by this Spider-Man to find a way to disable Kingpin’s particle accelerator, and therefore save the universe, but this cosmic task seems very grounded with the struggles Morales faces in feeling alone and lost in his task and world. With the help of spider-powered heroes from other universes, Morales must find an identity, confidence, and strength, a struggle taken on by many teenagers (although I would argue that his race and struggles with class, as evidenced by his father’s pressure to “move up,” make these universal struggles even more relevant for a large audience). Although the teen often feels alone, he is, though sometimes begrudgingly, joined in his task by a wide cast of characters.

Each character, and sometimes iterations of the same character, have something to add to the film, and although the film is animated, rarely do they feel two-dimensional. Even Aunt May (voiced by Lily Tomlin) is a different version of the character than previously seen, more independent and resilient than films have given her the opportunity to be in the past. In a world that has seen Spider-Man on screen so many times in the last years, it’s hard to imagine a film with so many versions of the hero to allow them to be unique, but the film even allows us a version of Peter Parker very different than any we’ve seen before, described accurately by Morales as a “jenky old broke hobo Spider-Man.” Even the porkine hero Spider-Ham, voiced by a delightful John Mulaney, features in the film and manages to be at least a little more than a gag. The cast of characters from different genres and dimensions allow the film to flourish, and allow both artists and actors to showcase their skills.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is visually and auditorily stunning in ways I wish I had the knowledge to more accurately describe. It’s obvious that the film was crafted by artists who truly love what they do, and who truly love and respect comic books. Daniel Pemberton has composed one of the most fantastic original scores I have ever heard, and artists like Nicki Minaj, Post Malone and Blackway and Black Caviar do an excellent job adding to the fresh and invigorating feel the soundtrack adds to the film. The art style is also something unique for a feature film– modern 3D computer animation is combined with the traditional 2D “dot” style of comic books. This style allows the film to surpass some of the confines comic book films face in live-action format. The concept of “Spidey Senses” has never entirely worked in live-action, but in animation, is able to simply be drawn on the screen via colors and wavy lines, so that the viewers can experience it without having to rely on tired explanations by characters. Additionally, the film uses traditional comic book techniques such as panels, which are able to provide humor and emotional punches depending on the scene. Onomatopoeias scroll up and down the screen, love notes to the original art form. Scenes such as doors of a subway car opening and closing are gorgeous in ways they perhaps wouldn’t be able to be in any other medium. The film is a beautiful piece of art, an homage to comic books and wholly unique, along with being a love story to Brooklyn, to change, and to evolution.

I would argue that the world already knew from films such as 2018’s Black Panther that comic book movies can be culturally-relevant pieces of art rather than just action-filled “popcorn flicks”, but through the use of classic yet groundbreaking animation, a compelling cast of characters, and an immersive soundtrack, Into the Spider-Verse further elevates the genre and adds a unique and breathtaking work of art to its list.