“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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Sinister Summer: “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) Retrospective Review

Summertime often means sleep away camps, beach trips, road trips, and more. So many horror films take place during the summer and others serve as material for ghost stories around a campfire. This summer, I thought I would have a shortrun series on some of my favorite horror films that I’ve titled Sinister Summer. With the Friday the 13th next month falling on the precise day that the original Friday the 13th movie takes place and it being Jason Voorhees’ birthday, I first thought I would take a look at the original movie. But then I figured, why not do a retrospective on other horror films during June, July, and August? First up on the Sinister Summer series is my favorite slasher series A Nightmare on Elm Street featuring my favorite horror icon Freddy Krueger. Unlike with other slasher icons who hide behind masks and never speak, I consider Freddy to be the most terrifying because he can talk to his victims and attack you in your sleep–a time in which you are most vulnerable. Moreover, dreams are a private time and he invades that sacred scape. Furthermore, we don’t pay much attention to the actor behind other icons such as Jason, Leatherface, and Michael but actor Robert Englund is synonymous with Freddy because we get to appreciate the actor’s performance, charisma, and enthusiasm. Let’s get started.

1, 2 Freddy’s coming for you; 3, 4 better lock your door, 5, 6 grab your crucifix, 7, 8 gonna stay up late, 9, 10 never sleep again. If that jingle still sends chills down your spine, you’re not alone. Writer-director Wes Craven’s nightmare on screen has been terrifying audiences for more than 30yrs and has even had a crossover with Jason Voorhees. Beyond the silver screen, the Nightmare on Elm Street (NoES) franchise has been featured at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, interactive media (video games), and Robert Englund reprised his most famous role in the Halloween episode of The Goldbergs [in October 2018]. Inspired by a series of articles in the LA Times; three small articles about men from Southeast Asia, who were from immigrant families, who died in the middle of nightmares—and the paper never correlated them, never said, ‘Hey, we’ve had another story like this.” From that short series of articles came the franchise that we know and love today. But there is so much more to NoES than the fact it was inspired by truly unexplained deaths during nightmares. I’ve written before that the horror genre is the best genre for creatively exploring the human condition, questioning standards and observations, providing different perspectives on sociologically, exploring psychology, heteronormativity, and more, often in terrifying ways to get you to think, and NoES certainly gives us lots of material to talk about. At its core, NoES provides ample opportunity to discuss the distinction between dreams and real life, manifesting in the actions of the teens in the film; furthermore, the events of the film transgress the boundary between imagination and reality that provocatively toy with the audience’s perceptions of the real and imagined. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone on crack.

On the surface, it appears that the only motivation of Freddy’s kills and trauma-inducing actions is revenge–plain and simple. After all, he was burned alive by the parents of the Elm Street teens. And so he takes his revenge out on the teens and occasionally their parents. Albeit revenge is a classic motivator, it lacks substance; however, there is much more to Freddy and the NoES series than revenge. What truly separates classic Freddy from new (remake) Freddy and from Michael and Jason is his sick commitment to showmanship. It’s just about the kills, it’s about putting on a show for his own amusement. Almost exclusively attacking teenagers, Freddy’s attacks on the mind and body can be interpreted as being symbolic of the various and often traumatic experiences encountered by young people. Our central character Nancy is the straight-laced strong-willed teenager that experiences social and sexual anxiety around her peers and parents. Clearly she is someone who has had a strong relationship with her parents–especially her father–but that relationship has become strained due to her parents becoming increasingly disconnected from her through abuse of alcohol, pills, or simply not being present. One could go so far as to assess that the parents serve as opposition to the goal of defeating Freddy and survival.

Way before the proliferation of YA movies today and unlike typical slasher films, Craven makes it a point to place the power of survival into the hands of the teenagers. He then transfers the importance of physiological control to psychological control over the unconscious mind and that which induces fear. The ability to defeat Freddy lies within the mind of Nancy. And of course, Dream Warriors places that power into multiple minds. Originally Wes Craven wanted Nancy’s entire experience to be one big nightmare but New Line Cinema wanted a darker, more macabre ending in order to pave the way for sequels because that is there the money is. Just like John Carpenter desired for Halloween to be ONE film, Craven originally desired for NoES to be one and done. Fortunately for us, both have become hugely successful franchises. However, many agree that the originals (or even extended to the first 2-3 films) are the timeless ones.

Freudian imagery and analogies are in no short supply in NoES. Even more so than in other horror films where sexual content is common, the manner in which it is used in NoES is symbolic of Freudian themes that are manifested in the manner by which Freddy stalks, toys with, and kills his prey. For the most part, the Freudian imagery is shown through a sexual context in threatening and mysterious ways that play with the teens’ perceptions of their reality versus a nightmarish imagination. Each sexual image or action is representative of some type of trauma to the body that is connected to the mind and thus becomes part of the subconscious that impacts thoughts and actions.

The various scenes that take place within the dreams of the teenagers quite possibly represent Craven’s own nightmares or perhaps even your own. Just like you might talk to a therapist about a recurring dream or nightmare in order to interpret the imagery and meaning, Craven may be working through his own dreams on the screen. The dreams and Freudian symbolism are what separate NoES from the likes of Halloween. Strip away the dreams, and you have a slasher who kills teenagers. These dreams give NoES depth, and this dimension is what beckons us to face the uncanny and pleasurable unpleasures of this film. Importantly, cinephiles and horror enthusiasts should note that the dreams never end. Evidence of this occurs at the end of the film. In terms of Freudian terminology, there is sufficient evidence in the film to suggest that Freddy represents the id (the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest). He acts impulsively, killing those who are connected to the ones who burned him alive in that boiler room after discovering he was a child killer (although the original script refers to him as a child molester). He feeds off fear and comes to life in dreams, full of revenge. Clearly audiences are witnessing a battle between the id, ego, and superego throughout the events of the movie. Unfortunately, there is no real winner in this battle of the mind and body. But there is a winner in the actor Robert Englund. Arguably, he is the biggest single horror genre star since Vincent Price.

Let’s not forget the comedic components of NoES. Beyond the dreams and thematic depth that sets this film apart from Halloween and Friday the 13th, is the dark comedy. Part of Freddy’s dark comedic charm is the fact that he can talk and toy with his victims in ways that Jason, Leatherface, and Michael cannot. For one simple reason, Freddy is not hidden behind a mask. Freddy has a sense of humor. Strange as it may seem for a slasher, he often integrates humor into his dialogue and actions. This is what makes him fun to watch. The original NoES could be read as the parents being the villains and Freddy being an anti-hero. For all the reasons to be terrified of Freddy, he comes off as a little goofy. As if he just grabbed the first hat, shirt, and pants he saw walking though a rummage sale. His taunting of Tina in the opening scene of the film comes off as taunting, not horrifying. It’s like he’s a cat, toying with his victims because it is way more fun than going in for an immediate kill. Another favorite comedic moment in the movie is when the long, disgusting tongue comes out of the phone when Nancy is talking on it, and Freddy says “I’m your boyfriend now.”

Variety ran a great article on this very subject. Here is what columnist Jason Zinoman stated, “[Freddy] has a weakness for catchphrases (“better not dream and drive”), dopey word play (“feeling tongue tied?,” he asks a victim tied to a bed by tongues) and a predilection for a certain word that makes him sound like a catty teenage girl (“Bon appetit, bitch”; “Welcome to prime time, bitch,” etc). But there’s no denying the star of so many nightmares knows how to deliver a line. He sells his stale material with an admirable professionalism—he’s the Jay Leno of serial killers.”

Looking back at A Nightmare on Elm Street and the legacy it inspired, it is clear that this film and franchise has so much to offer those of us who have been watching for years and those who are beginning to explore the fascinating genre of horror. NoES has it all. Comedy, visceral horror, commentary on the human condition, explorations of the subconscious, and more. It’s this delicate balance of all these elements that bolsters the plot and characters, gives us a horror film of substance. A film that is more than cheap thrills and chills.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, please subscribe! Follow Ryan on Twitter @RLTerry1 and Instagram @RL_Terry for more on movies, theme parks, and entertainment news.

“Deadpool 2” movie review

“Deadpool, can you hear me?” Subversive, irreverent, brilliant, meta. It very well may be better than the first. How often do we get to say that about direct sequels? Ryan Reynolds’ witty, crass, charmingly naughty superhero is back to take even the most unrelentingly serious movie patron, and drive them to complete laughter. The square peg of the X-Men’s round universe returns with non-stop action, antics, and fourth-wall breaking humor virtually deconstructing everything from the opening credits to the post-credit scenes. Nothing new there; however, Deadpool assures the audience that the story they are about to see is a family movie. And after watching it, it may be unconventional, but it’s a solid family film. Maybe not “family entertainment,” by the Disney definition, but about family nevertheless. Speaking of which, we may have just watched the final Deadpool as we know it before it gets the Big D sanitization treatment, should Comcast (NBC Universal) not swoop in to save 20th Century from the otherwise inevitable Disney acquisition. Deadpool 2 isn’t just better than the first one simply because it’s funnier, more risqué, or more clever; in measurable ways, it possesses stronger villain(s), stronger opposition to the goal, and a better plot overall. Not your everyday “family” film, but filled with emotional tugs at your heart strings, all the same. Just with a heaping helping of self-aware and self-deprecating bawdy humor.

For two years, Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) has continued his mercenary work, taking down villain after villain, crook after crook; but, after he fails to kill one of his targets on an extra-special day to him, he is faced with tragedy. Through a series of bizarre events–yes, even bizarre for Wilson–Wilson finds himself in a maximum-security prison ran by the DMC (Dept of Mutant Control) along with a renegade 14yo mutant named Russell. When Cable (Josh Brolin), a high-tech assassin, arrives from the future to take out a target that he claims leads to total destruction, Wilson must battle inner and outer demons in order to get his heart into the right place. Knowing he’s facing the most dangerous villain he’s ever encountered, Wilson forms the X-Force, a diverse “superhero” group of many talents in order to apprehend the target to prevent the world from plunging into complete chaos.

There is a comedic power in the plot of Deadpool 2 that invites the audience, at every turn, to laugh with the movie as it laughs at itself. There are a few running schticks throughout the film, but my favorite is the continued references to Barbra Streisand’s groundbreaking film Yentl featuring the iconic Streisand ballad Papa, Can You Hear Me? To which, Deadpool points out sounds an awful lot like Do You Wanna Build a Snowman from Disney’s Frozen. And it’s the implication of Disney appropriating Streisand’s song where the “Disney joke” was likely cut from the movie. Other jokes carry over from the first film such as the X-Men mansion with only Negasonic Teenage Warlord and Colossus roaming around. Some of the schticks from the first movie are transformed for this direct sequel. Contrary to the Wade Wilson from the first film, this one, this one diverts from his persistent aversion to companionship and a desire to be the “lone ranger,” as it were, and expresses a need for family. This desire for family serves as the backdrop of running jokes, gags, and extreme snark.

Streisand isn’t the only female vocal artist highlighted in the film, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, Pat Benatar’s We Belong, and Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time are all featured, all that we were missing was Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time. Unlike the completely unconventional opening credit sequence from the first Deadpool, this sequel’s opening credit sequence takes a page out of the James Bond handbook, complete with the new single Ashes by Celina Dion. Like the opening credit sequence from the first film, this one also replaces the names with jokes that certainly aid in setting the irreverent mood of the film. Although a film should never primarily rest upon the music, as the plot should stand on its own, the score and featured songs are incredibly important assets that can greatly enhance the experience. Deadpool 2 contains a few montages set to song that will certainly have you rolling over laughing. Sometimes it’s the complete contrast or juxtaposition that the lyrics provide against the action in the foreground that drive the audience to complete hysterical laughter.

For all the first film got right, one of the elements missing from it was a well-developed, dynamic villain (more specifically, opposition to the external goal). Deadpool 2 provides solid central opposition to the external goal (which, for spoiler sake, I won’t mention) flanked by two villains taken directly out of the X-Men comics (and X-Men: the Animated Series). Cable, mentioned earlier, and the Juggernaut. Not to pigeonhole Cable into the villain category, there is more to this villain than first meets the eye. He can be more accurately described as an anti-hero because of his reasons for returning to the past to stop Armageddon, so to speak. Knowing Cable’s backstory, his goals, and that which he sees as opposition to his goals, gives him a character depth seldom seen in many superhero villains. When a villain (or anti-hero) can get the audience to empathize with his or her plight, then the villain succeeds in being well-developed and complicated. Having a complicated villain enables the audience to love or love to hate the villain. But in both cases, the audience loves to see the villain (or anti-hero) on screen. Supplementing the cast of villains in Deadpool 2, is the iconic X-Men character Juggernaut. His introduction into the film comes at a strategic turning point that launches the plot into the showdown.

The film makes an important observation about the lack of plus-sized lead characters in superhero movies. Russell is a plus-sized mutant who wants so desperately to be a superhero, but sends the message to Wilson (and by extension, the audience) that there should be room for non-athletic types in the superhero universe. It’s an important message that I think would have played out more effectively had the actor not been so childish. I understand that the character is a 14yo mutant who is still struggling to find his place in this world and understand his powers, but I kept seeing the actor and not the character. The ability to bring a character to life without the actor showing is part of the art of acting. In most cases, the audience wants to see the character, not the actor playing him or her. I liked the character of Russell, just think he could have been portrayed by another actor who could have more effectively driven the message home that diversity in the superhero universe mans more than male, female, straight, gay, etc. It should also incorporate a diversity of body types. Having non-athletic body types represented in lead characters–superheroes specifically–is an element that I hope continues to improve.

There truly is so much to enjoy about Deadpool 2. Behind the ballsy jokes, suggestive poses, and hilarious meta observations, is solid writing and direction. With the Disney acquisition of 20th Century Fox all but complete, with the wild card of Comcast’s (NBC Universal) bidding 19% more than Disney in cash that could alter the direction of the deal, I hope that we did not witness the last Deadpool free of Disney sanitization. Knowing that they strong-armed Fox into cutting a Disney joke from the film during post-production, does not help matters any. Hopefully, the third installment of Deadpool will be just as funny, if not funnier than the first two. Oh yeah, it should go without saying but this NOT a superhero movie for kids.

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (or WTF)” movie review

WTFQuite the unexpected surprise from comedienne Tina Fey! Paramount Pictures’ Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is one part self-reflexive film on television news production and one part self-discovery. Unlike the feel of the previews, WTF is not really a comedy–not in the traditional sense anyway. There certainly are moments throughout the film that are funny and will cause you to chuckle, but it is definitely more of a drama. The brilliance of Fey’s acting in this movie is truly showcased by her ability to display that she can do serious just as well as funny. Most of the funny parts are given away in the previews, so don’t think you’re going to get more laughs during the movie. Based on actual events, WTF takes you behind the camera and behind enemy lines to depict what it is like for television news foreign correspondents in a war zone. Although the movie was not what I expected at all, I am very pleased with the story, all be it, slow burning. Beyond the self-reflexive subplot in the movie is the foreground story of self-discovery. Fey represents so many of us who just feel like we are spinning our wheels, treading water,  or even moving backwards. The inspirational elements of the movie come from her willingness to take chances, make mistakes, and get dirty (as the Magic School Bus‘s Miss Frizzle would say).

What would you do? You’re dissatisfied with your job as a television news writer/producer, have a mildly depressive boyfriend, small apartment, and just need to get away. If you’re Kim Barker (Tina Fey), then you head off to Kabul, Afghanistan to become a foreign correspondent during the early days of the War on Terror. After an expedited visa and passport, Barker embarks on her journey as a representative of the U.S. press in one of the most dangerous places on earth. Armed with her laptop, camera, notepad, and two staff members, she sets out to discover the real stories in Kabul and the surrounding areas. Thinking that she is the only girl in a military barracks, Barker is relieved to meet Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) who takes Barker under her wings to show her the ropes of reporting the news amidst a war and hundreds of “thirsty” journalists and military personnel. While covering the stories of the war, Barker concurrently takes a journey of self-discovery that is filled with mountains and valleys.

Let’s be real here. Even if you analyze movies on a regular basis like me, you too were probably thinking that this would be a dramedy (drama/comedy). And yes, comedy is really drama in disguise; but I digress. The previews are certainly cut together in such a way that it looks like a very Fey-esque wartime comedy. I am not going so far as to saying that Paramount pulled a bait ‘n switch–because the movie is of a good quality and enjoyable–but the is no doubt that I went in expecting classic Fey and was presented with her more serious side. Still, through her witty quips and non-verbal dialog, she infuses conventional comedy and self-deprecating humor throughout the narrative. Like many dialog-driven dramas, even ones during a war, this movie has a very slow pace especially in the first act. Some additional comedy probably would have helped in the beginning to hook the audience. Speaking of the hook, that is probably what’s missing from the first few minutes of the movie. I think the studio sacrificed a traditional hook because the hook was Tina Fey herself. Fortunately, the film wastes no times in getting Kim Barker to Afghanistan, and that is definitely a good move. Although we are introduced to several chief characters in the movie, the focus is definitely on the character development of Barker with some minor development and introspect on the other principle players.

There are really two stories here: the foreground story of self-discovery and the background self-reflexive plot. Both are seamlessly married together in order to accurately tell both without sacrificing the other. Although we all know that there are foreign correspondents in war zones, we don’t always get to see what it’s really like to uncover stories, pitch to executives back in the states, and maintain sanity and safety; but through this film, we witness just how hard it really is to be a foreign television news correspondent. From networking, to interviewing, to shooting B-roll and stand-ups, Barker takes us on the journey from concept to delivery of producing news int he middle of a battle zone. Beyond the battle field, Barker is coping with her own personal and professional battles. If it isn’t the cheating boyfriend, it is the network who put her on the hourly plan and gives her no screen time. But, through it all, Barker never gives up and refuses to sit idly by and allow herself to be walked over. Fortunately, Barker does get her big break during the climax of the movie, but you’ll have to watch the movie to see what that is.

If you plan to see just one movie this weekend, I definitely encourage you to see this one. It’s gritty, funny, and inspirational. This is also a great opportunity to watch Fey in a more serious role and decide for yourself if she convinces you that she can play serious just as well as the comedy we all know and love her for. You may have seen other wartime movie, but this one plays out differently in that the focus is truly on the character development of the protagonist with the war merely being the backdrop and conduit through which we see her story of summits and pitfalls.