“Mary Poppins Returns” full film review

A spoonful of nostalgia isn’t enough to make the narrative go down. The highly anticipated Mary Poppins Returns hits theatres this week. Unfortunately, this film gets lost in nostalgia, neglecting the need to tell a new story. Instead, we get more than half a movie full of frivolity that lacks any coherent meaning or substance that is more concerned with hitting the same plot beats with similar songs at the same moments in this version as it was with the original. Visually, the movie is flawless and the animation sequences were a welcomed visit from the past. Reminded me of, if the animation from Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Mary Poppins got together, this is what you’d get. When creating a sequel that doubles as a remake, connections to the original are important but should not be at the diegetic forefront. Mary Poppins Returns exists in a gray area that is neither a sequel nor a remake. Had Mary Poppins Returns been a full-on sequel or remake, then perhaps the narrative would have faired better. As it stands, it sits uncomfortably in the middle and suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Perhaps this version is lacking in critical value and complex characters, but it ranks highly in entertainment value. There isn’t anything particularly memorable about it except for the special appearances by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury, but the movie offers a couple hours of whimsical fun.

In depression-era London, the Banks family faces one of the greatest hardships a family can face–losing their home. Compounding the present state of affairs, the family is also coping with the recent loss of Michael Banks’ wife and mother of their three children. With help from the family’s longtime maid/cook Ellen and Michael’s sister Jane, the family hopes for the best while planning for the worst. With only five days until the house is repossessed, Michael remembers that his father left him shares of that infamous bank from his childhood; but when certificates of shares in the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank turn out to be missing, all hope seems lost until Michael, his children, and Jane get the surprise of a lifetime. Mary Poppins returns! Michael and Jane’s beloved nanny from their childhood returns to look after the family during this crisis. In true Mary Poppins fashion and accompanied by the lamplighter Jack, she whisks Michael’s children into a fun-filled adventure through the streets of London and into a world of imagination.

At the bedrock of the original are these lessons that must be learned. In many ways, Mary Poppins was a teacher to both Jane, Michael, and George. Although the lessons varied by character, they had one common denominator: life’s priorities. And there were no true villains–that is–evil or villainous out of malcontent or cruelty. And the songs had strong meaning, not just fun, creative lyrics to a show-stopping accompaniment. Furthermore, there was strong character development in the central characters. The character arcs of George and the kids were measurable. Even Mr. Dawes Sr. demonstrated measurable change. There are the elements of substance that make the original a timeless classic that transcends the decades and generations to remain a beloved film. Mary Poppins Returns fails to deliver any of these elements to the audience. Instead, chooses to get lost in the nostalgia of the original. Relying on the abstract of nostalgia to carry this remake-sequel.

While Michael’s lesson is clearly to learn to be a child again, his children learn the lesson to be quasi adults by teaching their father and working to solve the family’s financial crisis. Those two idea are in direct contradiction. Mary Poppins is no longer acting like a teacher but she seems more concerned with being an actual nanny moreso than the governess that was the original. If the lesson to be learned was to have the imagination or hope of a child, then that should have been taught, not two different lessons in direct contrast. George Banks may have been had his priorities in the wrong place, but he was not evil, nor was Mr. Dawes Sr. evil–he too had his priorities all askew. In Mary Poppins Returns, Colin Firth’s Mr. Wilkins is downright cruel for no reason other than simplistic greed. Simple motivators are a good place to start but should be developed to be more complex to add to the conflict. Firth’s character is completely uninteresting.

Talk about memorable songs in the original; I imagine you can recite most lyrics by memory, unlike this version with lyrics so convoluted and complex that they are largely forgettable. At the time of listening, the lyrics are poignant and work at the given emotional or plot beat, but then they are mostly forgotten. The songs in this one seem to exist only for the amusement of the audience. And the vaudeville number. Let’s talk about that for a moment. For starters, I love Mary’s wig that she borrowed from Catherine Zeta Jone’s Chicago costume. The music and lyrics in that number were incredibly entertaining–but–these same lyrics are quite risque in places. I was shocked that they were in a movie aimed at kids (despite the PG rating). And comparing the songs from the original to the ones in this version, each and every song in Mary Poppins Returns sounds similar AND comes at precisely the same beat as they did in the original. Each and every song in this one is an answer to the counterpart in the original. With one conspicuous exception, there is no equivalent for the Sister Suffragette. With Jane’s heavy involvement in workers’ rights (much like her mother’s women’s rights), it seems odd that she was not given a song since were were giving everyone else songs equivalent to the original. Yes, I am aware that Sister Suffragette is not in the Broadway musical, but it should have had a place in Mary Poppins Returns.

Structurally, the first two acts are all over the place. Fortunately, the film finishes with a strong third act. Everything seems so forced, rushed. Pacing matched the original. It’s as if the emotional beats and plot points from the original were mapped out and a “new” story was conformed to fit the old diegesis. There are even moments that can be completely removed from the story and not effect the outcome. For example, the entire Meryl Street scene has no impact on the realization of the narrative. Screenwriting 101 teaches us that each and every scene should point the audience toward the end–each scene should culminate in something important. Think of each scene as a paragraph in a larger story and each line of dialogue as a sentence in a larger paragraph. Each paragraph has a beginning, middle, and end; just like a story has a beginning, middle, and end. If a scene does not advance the plot, then it should be reworked or removed. We never revisit the cracked pot or truly embrace the idea of giving oneself a new perspective from which to view life. The song is fun, but that is all I can say about that scene. And there are other scenes in the movie that do little to advance the plot, but this is the most obvious one.

The movie is not without its entertainment value. If you are looking to escape reality for a couple of hours, then you are in the right place. You will be delighted with the whimsy and magic of this story. Perhaps the screenplay is poorly conceived, but everything else (from a technical perspective and performance perspective) works very well. If you enter the film with a heavy heart or some degree of sadness, the movie will help you forget your troubles for a moment and put a smile on your face and maybe even a tear or two in your eyes. Emily Blunt may not be a perfect Mary Poppins but she is practically perfect as the beloved nanny.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“A Quiet Place” horror film review

Heart-pounding. Spine-chilling. A creepy creature-feature that will leave you speechless. The demonstrable excellence in terrifying visual storytelling can effectively be summed up by the queen of silent film herself Norma Desmond, “we didn’t need dialogue, we had faces” (Sunset Boulevard). A Quiet Place truly earns its place among “certified fresh” horror films. Not since Don’t Breath and 10 Cloverfield Lane have I encountered such a thrillingly intelligent motion picture. Writer-director John Krasinski’s post-apocalyptic horror masterpiece showcases the power of visual storytelling within the horror genre. Furthermore Krasinski brilliantly channeled the soul of the iconic (mostly Universal Pictures) silent and early horror films for his modern interpretation of the creature-feature. No gimmicks here. Only a solid plot that builds an incredible, immersive cinematic experience upon the foundation of a simple plot with simple limitations. Simple plot, complex characters. That basic screenwriting principle is where so many filmmakers and writers go astray. Film is a visual medium, often supported by well-crafted, lean dialogue, and this film has visual storytelling in spades. This film represents one of the best examples of embracing the concept of “show don’t tell.”

Shhhh. Don’t make a sound. One family finds themselves surviving a post-apocalyptic world now inhabited by an alien species that hunts by sound.

There has certainly been a resurgence of exceptional horror films over the last few years. I mentioned Don’t Breath and 10 Cloverfield Lane earlier, we also have the Academy Award nominated Get Out from last year and many others. While many may shrug their shoulders at horror because it is a proliferated genre with many cheep, tawdry horror flicks, this same genre can be incredibly intelligent in how it makes an observation of society and offers commentary, a new perspective, or provides a means to a discussion. Some of the most critically acclaimed films over the decades have been horror. Being among the first films commercially released, horror has also stood the test of time and provides audiences with a experience that challenges worldviews, provokes physiological responses, and fuels nightmares and imaginations.

One of the most brilliant aspects to A Quiet Place is the film’s innate ability to instantly hook the audience with loud silence. Going into the movie, audiences know that the arachnid-like creatures kill anything within an earshot. Therefore, the audiences hang onto every bump, snap, or thud as the tension rises and suspense is drawn out to terrifying levels. Impeccable audience engagement. It takes a special kind of movie to completely immerse the audience into the world of the film in a multidimensional way. In terms of viability of the film and cross-promotion, this movie certainly has what it takes to be a popular and successful adaptation for a house at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights or Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream. Definitely has a place among the best horror film experiences to date.

The successful suspense and tension building can be attributed to seldom getting a good look at the alien-arachnid-like creatures. Had the audience seen the creature repeatedly throughout the film, it would lose fright value. As Hitchcock stated, “there is nothing scarier than an unopened door.” Meaning, the filmmaker’s ability to transfer the terror on screen to the minds of the audience is far more powerful and impressive than relying upon on-the-nose scares and jump-scare gimmicks. Well-crafted suspense and rising tension carries far more weight, and has the ability to support a narrative so much more effectively than a cheap scare. Although the atmosphere in this film may remind you of Don’t Breath, and rightly so, Krasinski’s film does not quite measure up to the macabre, terrifying atmosphere that Fede Alvarez provided audiences; however, Krasinski’s A Quiet Place is extremely close to the aforementioned and deserves the accolades that it has received.

In terms of how to closely read A Quiet Place, the film provides exceptional social commentary on the perils parenting and, by extension, protecting one’s offspring. In fact, I imagine that the experience for parents watching this film exceeds the levels of terror felt by those of us who do not have kids. There is also plenty of material on how far a parent is willing to go in order to protect their children. I also appreciate the film’s commentary on expected mothers, and how they stop at nothing to protect their unborn child from that which seeks to do it harm. Responding to and working through grave tragedy is another heavy and shocking subject matter in the film. We all respond to death differently; many of us grieve differently than one another. Some bottle up all the negative feelings for fear of how to deal with them, and others blame themselves because they feel that there is something that could’ve been done differently to protect a lost loved one. On a lighter note, the film also provides metaphor on how to work with and handle your older kids when they seek to push the boundaries–boundaries that may be dangerous and place them in harm’s way. There is so much here to talk about, and I have just touched on the surface. That is why horror is the best genre for creatively exploring psycho-social constructs and other observations about humanity and the world in which we live.

Quietly make your way to your seat in the auditorium. A Quiet Place is definitely a film to be experienced on the big screen with a theatre full of others who seek to be frightened. Enjoy the refreshing originality of a film that could have so easily went by way of so many other creatures features that lack anything memorable, and just blend into the background with countless others in this subgenre of horror. It may not have the well-defined external goal and end game of Don’t Breath, but it is certainly exciting and fun! You’ll certainly be absorbed into this terrifying post-apocalyptic world, where YOU are afraid to go bump in the night.

“The Girl on the Train” movie review

girlonthetrainA tastes great, less filling, David Fincher-esque flick. DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment’s The Girl on the Train directed by Tate Taylor and starring Emily Blunt is the much anticipated film adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name written by Paula Hawkins. With a slow windup and quick delivery, the suspense thriller plays off as a knockoff combination of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Fincher’s Gone Girl, and George Cukor’s Gaslight. Despite the wild success of the novel, this film adaptation appears to have jumped the tracks. In fact, fans of the novel may find that this translation from page to screen is a bumpy ride. The film is not without its high points; the plot is certainly intriguing and Blunt’s portrayal of the protagonist is excellent; however, her outstanding performance is simply not enough to carry the weight of an otherwise flawed film. The film fails to truly create that sense of dread and heighten the anxiety levels of the audience. There were many missed opportunities to tighten up the writing during the windup and spend more time on a successful nail-biting punch during the third act. It’s one of those films that feels like Act I is 2/3 of the movie with Acts II/III being 1/6 each. Lots of verbal exposition when exposition through showing would have been more effective. Don’t get me wrong; it was a fun suspense thriller and the plot twist and turning point from Act II to III was quite the shocker; but, the film just never seemed to move beyond the surface level.

Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is not adapting to life as a divorcee very well. She has a pronounced drinking problem and cannot seem to hold a job. Rides the train into New York City from the countryside everyday, passing her old neighborhood. Starring into not only her old house but the house of a couple she feels are the embodiment of love, Rachel develops an unhealthy obsession with the characters that appear outside of the window as sh narrates their lives. When she learns that the young woman who lives in the house two doors up from where she used to live, has gone missing, she place herself in the midst of the investigation. Not having dealt with her own sordid past, Rachel begins to obsess over the mystery because of the empathy she feels for the missing girl. Once the authorities feel that Rachel has crossed the line too many times, they begin to look her direction. Determined to solve the case of the missing girl, Rachel must put together puzzle pieces that she never thought she would have to face again.

If I had to sum up the film adaption of The Girl on the Train, I would concisely put it this way: under-developed. From the locations themselves to the writing (screenplay) to the plot and characters, this mystery-thriller-suspense movie fails to impact the audience and truly elicit a strong emotional response. Tapping into emotions and affecting anxiety levels is paramount for suspense-thrillers. After such a long, drawn-out wind up and the rushed showdown, this film does not live up to the hype that the novel generated. Having not read the novel, I cannot comment on differences or even how the movie could have been done better; but screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson could have done a better of job of creative a cinematic story fit for the silver screen. The flaws of the film so not stop with the writing, but director Tate Taylor’s vision, for the best-seller, should be checked because it appears as though he may need glasses. If it was not for Blunt’s commitment to the character of Rachel, the film would have had very little entertainment value. This is one of those films that was saved by attaching excellent talent.

This film falls into the same sub-genre as Gone Girl. But, what made Gone Girl so successful was the exceptional direction from David Fincher and simply the fact that author Gillian Flynn also wrote the screenplay. If an author can be trained to write the screenplay of the film adaption of their literary work, then that is always the best approach because they know the characters and plot better than anyone. Fincher also includes many WTF moments and treats the camera more than lens through which to witness a visual story but creates magic that takes the audience out of the threats and transports them into the movie. The Girl on the Train has a great premise and intriguing plot. The foundation IS there for a great movie adaptation. The writing not only doesn’t do the book justice, from what I have read, but fails to create a cinematic experience as well.

Other than Rachel, the rest of the cheaters are two-dimensional. We are given just enough information to make them mildly interesting, but the character development just isn’t there. Much like the detective in Gone Girl was as interesting to follow as the main cast, Detective Riley should have been just as well developed for this film. Rachel’s ex-husband, his wife, their nanny, and the nanny’s husband have the makings of a cast of characters filled with lies, deceit, betrayal, dark secrets, and intrigue (and to some extent, that comes across in the movie); however, all those elements are touched on but never truly fleshed out. Do those elements have a place in the plot of the film? Yes. But, do they play a dynamic a role as they could have? Not particularly. Most everything in the film is very surface level. All the makings are there for a film that could be nearly as thrilling as Gone Girl, but it’s all superficial. When location scouting for a film that relies upon houses, transportation, and proximity that are intricate to the plot, it is important to treat them AS cast. The two main houses and the train in this movie almost feel like they were selected out of convenience. Nothing about the locations or train grabbed me or generated a significant emotional response. However, I liked the proximity of the train to the houses and how the lake is on one side and the neighborhood on the other.

If you’re looking for a fun suspense-thriller to watch this weekend, then this one may fit the bill. But, you won’t get nearly the ‘train’ ride that you experienced in Gone Girl. Emily Bunt demonstrates a dynamic acting prowess compared to other characters that she has brought to life. Whether you choose to watch this film in a local cinema near you or wait for it to be on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, or HBO, the experience will be the same. At the end of the day, it’s a good movie but a poor film.