“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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“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” movie musical review

You won’t be able to resist the singing and laughter! A major summer box office win for Universal Pictures! Ten years ago, I loved Mamma Mia! and now I equally enjoyed the sequel that seemingly came out of nowhere. I danced, I jived, I had the time of my life, and you will too! The entire original cast is back, and not only them, but select supporting and atmospheric characters as well. Mostly filled with new additions to the Mamma Mia! musical soundtrack, you still get the crowd favorites, those showstopping numbers Dancing QueenSuper Trouper, and of course Mamma Mia. Selections from other songs from the original motion picture (and ABBA Gold album) also make appearances. In our world that seems to be filled with so much negativity, hate, and sadness, a movie like this is needed to lift the human spirit, let go of all your cares, and give yourself over to the timeless music of ABBA and the hilarious antics of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. Just like I will be the first to tell you that if you’re searching for the most fun show on Broadway, to select Mamma Mia!, the same rings true for the sequel to the original adaptation. It is so much fun! It might be kitschy fun, but immensely entertaining and very well produced. While some movies and movie musicals comment on society or deal with hard topics, this is a refreshing film that reminds us that it is okay to attend the cinema for no holds barred fun in order to uplift the human spirit.

It’s been ten years since Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) threw her wedding to find her dad, and she is working diligently to remodel and reopen her mother’s hotel. Sadly, Donna (Meryl Streep) has passed away and left the responsibility of running the hotel to her daughter. In order to do her mom proud, Sophie is putting the finishing touches on the grand opening party when she receives some troubling news and a storm wreaks havoc on the hotel. Channeling inspiration from her mother, Sophie reflects on all the stories her mother told her about how she met her dads and came to the island. We get to spend a significant amount of time with young Donna (Lily James) as she makes her way in this world. From graduation to making a home out of the farmhouse and falling for Harry, Bill, and Sam along the way. Sophie learn how her life parallels her mom’s in so many ways. Reuniting with Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski), she moves forward with determination to see her mother’s dream all the way through. Just when she’s had enough surprises in her life, Sophie finally comes face to face with her estranged grandmother Ruby (Cher).

There is beauty in simplicity. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again delivers an amazingly fun movie musical built upon a simple plot with iconic songs. It’s a juke box musical. While it may lack the depth, introspect, or critical value of other movie musicals, it possess a power to make an emotional connection that doesn’t hit you hard or seek to change your worldview on an issue, but instead uses the power of song and dance to make you smile. Genuinely smile. The kind of infectious smile and laughter that fills the auditorium at the movie theatre. Sometimes filmmakers are so concerned with upholding the art of cinema, packing in powerful messages, or visualizing deep themes that the desire to entertain for fun gets forgotten. Not only is this the most fun at the movies you will have this summer, but it’s a movie that is solidly produced. It has a command cast featuring performances by Meryl Street and Cher and a lovable cast of familiar and new characters. Whereas the original movie relies mostly on top tier ABBA songs that are generally known to fans and public, this movie employs mostly second and third tier ABBA songs. Fortunately, these lesser known songs will soon find their way into karaoke libraries and mix tape play lists on Spotify and AmazonMusic.

Do yourself a favor and head to the movies this weekend to smile, laugh, and sing along with Mamma Mia: Here We go Again! I enjoyed it so much, that I could definitely watch it again myself. But tomorrow night I need to watch Universal Pictures’ other release this week Unfriended: Dark Web (coincidentally, another sequel that came out of nowhere).

“The Post” movie review

The Fourth Estate, triumphant! Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a historic biographical drama depicting the story behind the infamous Pentagon Papers that set a monumental precedent in the US Supreme Court following a ruling in the favor of the freedom of the press. Probably the most significant ruling affecting journalism, this film goes beyond the cold, hard facts of the case and into the offices and houses of those who were responsible for shedding light on the lies the US government was spinning to keep the War in Vietnam going. In a manner of speaking, this film could be read as Spielberg’s ode to US journalism, and by extension, to the free press at large. While traditional ink and paper newspapers may be slowly becoming a thing of the past, Spielberg’s film shows that the press has an important place in a democratic society. Without the free press, a nation’s government could easily lie and maliciously mislead its people to serve its own gain. No surprise, Meryl Streep’s and Tom Hanks’ acting is simply brilliant; while the rolls may not seem incredibly complex, it’s the beauty in simplicity that demonstrates the excellent commitment to character that we all have come to respect over the years for these Oscar-winning actors. The Post is a historical drama brought to life for the screen through precise editing, beautiful cinematography, and a gripping score.

Unrest grows at home while the US is deep in the middle of the Vietnam War. With conflicting reports coming out of the warzone, the people of the United States have only the word of their government to assure them the war is going well but they have to continue sending the boys overseas to “win.” After a rogue journalist leaks papers from the Pentagon describing how the US is losing and it keeps sending boys overseas to keep up appearances to the New York Times, the attorney general places a restraining order on the iconic newspaper to prohibit it from publishing the classified material. After word of this unprecedented extension of power, the editor-in-chief of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee (Hanks) comes to have a copy of the papers and desires to publish them in order to show the American people what the government has really been up to. Only one small problem, the owner of The Washington Post Katharine (Kay) Graham (Streep), the first woman to own a major newspaper, is unsure if the papers should be published because she seeks to take the paper public and this could damage that–not to mention that she and Bradlee could go to jail. Go beyond the pages of a history book to witness the thrilling drama unfold as you find out just why The Pentagon Papers was such a big deal.

While many critics and fans of the movie are touting it as the “best movie of the year” or commenting to managers at cineplexes that it’s “amazing,” I am not convinced that it truly is “the best” or as “amazing” as it’s being heralded. Before you go questioning my taste in movies, I completely agree that The Post is an excellently made film–there is nothing wrong with it. For all intents and purposes, it is a perfect film. But just because it’s figuratively perfectly produced and directed, does not mean that it is “amazing.” In many ways, this movie reminds me of Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. It too is a perfectly made historic drama (coincidentally also starring Hanks) that falls within the same subgenre of drama as The Post. When I think of a Spielberg film, I have come to expect a wow factor. And it’s that lack of a wow factor that troubles me in awarding this film with an accolade such as “best picture.”

Usually, there is a particular scene that evokes strong emotion, perhaps it’s a powerful monologue or heated emotionally-driven exchange between two characters, there are other methods for evoking an eruption of feeling and emotion within the mind and body. Never once did I feel my emotions run high with this film. And I happen to be an entertainment journalist, I teach media writing at a popular university, and spent time in broadcast news. I have a love for the media, the press, and publishing. I also spent time in a media law class in graduate school analyzing the very papers in question, and I still did not feel emotionally woken up by the film. I find the film very well written, produced, shot, directed, acted, scored–everything is done with extreme precision. But, that’s what I have come to expect from Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks. Yes, to be able to consistently deliver excellence is nearly uncanny; but when I know what to expect, it’s much more difficult to surprise or wow me. That’s what is missing from this film in my opinion–the wow factor.

On the socio-political spectrum, I find the commentary on women in leadership is brilliant! Quite happy that the film chose such an incredible woman’s story to tell so cinematically well. The character of Kay Graham is not only an inspiration to aspiring female leaders, but she is an inspiration to all who find themselves in positions of influence or power for which society does not feel he or she is suited. Whereas this prejudice can affect men and women, history has shown that is has affected women more. And this film is a breath of inspiration for young women who will become future leaders around the world. Brave. Kay Graham was an incredibly brave woman who fought the good fight and proved that she could make the tough decisions that are required in order to grow a company. I also find that The Post serves as a beacon of hope that the press is here to serve the American people in a day and time that our government’s leaders claim that the press at large is “fake news.” Newspapers are here to serve the governed NOT the governers. Let the Pentagon Papers be a sign that our leaders are not past deception even if it means sending our military to certain death in order to keep up appearances.

The Post is definitely a movie that all journalists should watch. And not just “conventional” journalists. But anyone who takes part in publishing written, audio, or video media content. Especially those who cover governmental affairs should watch this historical drama highlighting a huge turning point in the freedom of the press.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” movie review

FlorenceFosterJenkinsBrilliant! Absolutely delightful. Paramount Pictures and BBC Films proudly present a magical film about one of the most legendary musical talents Madame Florence Foster Jenkins. This is the perfect film for the times that we live in. Just when so often we hear news about the worst in people, this film is about the best that people can be. Whether you are a musician or vocal artist yourself or simply appreciate the beauty of music, you will undoubtedly find this film fascinating and endearing. Meryl Streep provides audiences with a command performance as Jenkins, and will have you rolling around in your seat. Like classical music? This film has it. Prefer big band or jazz? This film has it. What about opera? It has that too. I doubt that there are many people as committed to the art of music as Jenkins was. One part musical and one part dramedy, Florence Foster Jenkins is a crowd-pleasing work of cinematic excellence. From brilliant writing to phenomenal acting, this film is a must-see for music lovers. Who would have known that someone with such a unique voice would have sung herself into the heart of millions. This film has a little something for everyone, especially those who are in the creative fields. May this film be an inspiration to all those who have drive, passion, a love for, and are dedicated to the pursuit of the arts, and open up that world to those who may not otherwise be able to experience it. Not sure what’s bigger…Jenkins’ heart or her stage presence. Whatever the case, this film is definitely one to catch on the big screen!

Return to New York City in 1944. Amidst the glitz, glamour, and sound of the very heart of the performing arts is a story of laughter and tears, but most importantly about a true unconditional love for both music and our friends and neighbors. Meet Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep). She is a well-known New York socialite who is a dedicated patron of the  arts, specifically music. She has transferred her love of music to a love of bringing people into her world. With ambitions dreams of becoming the next great opera singer, she records albums and books Carnegie Hall. There’s only one small problem; unfortunately her ambition is only succeed by her lack of an ability to carry a tune. In her head, she is an absolutely incredible talent. However, to everyone else, she sounds laughable. It matters not! She is determined to showcase her love of music to the world. Giving away 1000 tickets to military service members, she plans to fill the hallowed halls of Carnegie with the sounds of music and love. Her husband/manager St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) both stick by her as she plans to take Carnegie Hall by storm! Together they embark on a legendary journey that is still talked about and listened to today.

It’s so hard to know where to begin. There is quite possibly no film that truly captures the love of music and our fellow man nearly as remarkably as this film. Truly inspirational. From the writing, to the acting, to the sound track, it is a flawless story that is definitely best experienced on the big screen for Jenkins was truly a larger than life talent herself. You’ll laugh, laugh some more, and even cry a little. In many ways, this film fits the drawing room comedy subgenre of films. There are very few set changes, it is mostly dialog driven, and features various forms of comedy all working together to support a light-hearted film about the love of music. Instead of taking place in the drawing room of a home with a dynamic set of manners and social criticisms, this film takes place mostly in the homes of Jenkins, Bayfield, with a visit to the humble abode of McMoon. There is one common thread between all of them, there is either a piano or other device playing music that greatly affects the narrative. Paralleling real life, you have the grand piano in a magnificent Manhattan apartment belonging to someone who cannot play or sing very well–anymore, anyway. There is the basic, beat up upright piano in the home of a wonderfully talented pianist. And finally the home of the one without much talent at all who makes a better manager, there is a radio. Three different characters who seem to come together in the most brilliant of fashion. Each with a different part to play in the grand scheme of things. I greatly appreciate the film for keeping the focus on the love of music and not on the comedic flat, sharp, and howling notes of Jenkins’ voice.

As we are on the cusp of Oscar season (typically beginning in October), Streep’s portrayal of the, say, Ed Wood of opera singers could very well give her an Oscar nom. Making it her 20th! I don’t think there is anyone who could have played the roll as well as Streep. Yes, Strep is–no surprise–excellent at everything she does; still, there are roles that even surprise us. This is definitely one of the latter. When exploring the eccentric character of Jenkins, I am reminded of a character that is essentially a Norma Desmond of sorts. A faded star who refuses to admit her years and has extreme determination to return to the silver screen, or in this case, the stage at Carnegie Hall. Other than the inspirational message and creative storytelling based on actual events, I greatly appreciate the characters of the movie. Seems as though that Jenkins, Bayfield, and McMoon were made for each other. All unique in some form or fashion, depend on one another to achieve goals, and are more talented in their respective heads than in real life. Except. You cannot really say that about McMoon. He is definitely aware of his talent, but is so incredibly timid, shy, lacking confidence that he has extreme difficulty in allowing his talent to flourish. Much like Jenkins, Bayfield is a dedicated actor. Unfortunately, he too is much more talented in his mind than on the stage. Comedy is born out of conflict, and this beautiful film has plenty of conflict with which the characters to engage one another.

This film also highlights how incredibly devastating one critic’s review of a performance can be. Whether we are exploring film, theatre, music, or literature, a critic for a high profile outlet can make or break dreams. There are two kinds of critics, speaking as one myself. There is the critic who is so fixated on the technical components or surface level performance that he or she misses the soul of the performance or movie. Not that having a beautiful message overshadows poor production quality. However, there is a delicate balance that is important to strike to truly review or analyze a creative work. Did Florence Foster Jenkins’ performance accomplish what it set out to do? Indeed it did. Was it effective for injecting laughter into the lives of the soldiers and Manhattan music patronage community? Absolutely. She was and is truly a legend of incredible talent. Maybe not in the conventional sense, but she left a lasting impression  that has captured the imagination and attention of the world for decades. Director Stephen Frears successfully applies his vision of the story of Jenkins and translates it to the screen in a way that will inspire you to perhaps continue to pursue your own dreams no matter how much talent, or lack thereof, you have.

Don’t allow this movie to quietly slip by. Definitely catch it in theaters because Simon Helberg introduces the film and there is a behind-the-scenes/Q&A with Streep, Grant, and Helberg following the old-school credits.