Mary Poppins Returns

August 22, 2019

I love both Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, but they couldn’t save it.

This movie tries so hard. So very hard. Like, the musical numbers all line up to musical numbers in the first one:  Here’s the uplifting song about household chores! Here’s the one where we fall into the animated world and dance with penguins! Here are the cheerful working class dudes singing about how much they love their dangerous and debilitating jobs! I generally like musicals and singing and dancing but I got to a point where I wished they hadn’t tried so hard.

And the dead mother thing comes back. The family is in trouble because the mother has died and everything is now falling apart. This trope keep happening because it’s an easy, lazy way to begin a story with angst and drama. And as pointed out in a FB comment, it’s always the mother who dies because, conventionally, the mother is the one holding everything together, caretaker for both the children and the father. If the father died, the family would continue to function. The mother dies? Chaos. We saw this in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Beauty and the Beast, and so on. This is lazy, cliche storytelling dependent on a lot of unexamined stereotypes.

There’s another angle, I think:  Mary Poppins Returns needed to have adult Jane as part of the story. Writers often don’t seem to know how to make two adult women part of a story like this. (Mary Poppins isn’t really a woman, is she? She’s an Elemental. A Wizard.) If we had Jane and the mother (do we ever hear the Banks children’s mother’s name in this?  Like, at all?  See, mothers aren’t actually characters, they’re props.) would the story have enough to do for both of them?  The same thing happened in Maleficent:  Maleficent becomes Aurora’s mother figure, and then her bio-mother dies tragically halfway through the film, which was not part of the original Sleeping Beauty story. I think because the movie didn’t know what to do with two mother figures.

You know what would be interesting? Figuring out how to write two mother figures because it isn’t conventional and doesn’t rely on cliches.

And another thing… The original Mary Poppins a) Didn’t need to kill off the mother at the start and b) Had a clear message:  family is important and maybe you ought to pay attention to your kids once in a while.

What’s the message here?

Michael (the boy from the first movie, now a widower with three precocious children) is freaking useless. He screws up several times, in pretty big ways — mortgaging the house, falling behind on payments, and then sort of forgetting that he has this big inheritance and then losing the paper that proves he has this big inheritance. Sure, I guess the evil banker is evil for hiding evidence of the inheritance. But Michael I think is supposed to work in finance, and he doesn’t know how to handle these things? He’s just useless. And then, he is rewarded for screwing up.  No matter what happens, the cosmos will conspire fix it all because this is a movie designed to reassure the middle class that everything is a-okay!

Like, the city’s downtrodden working class, represented by the lamp lighters, will come together and risk their lives to ensure that he gets his massive inheritance so that he can pay off his mortgage?

Like, that actually happened? I dunno. It was all so weird.

The very best part of the movie was at the end, with a sudden appearance by Angela Lansbury and her distinctive voice. It was so wonderful to see her. They were all in the park with balloons instead of kites. But still.

 

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Tarantino is getting soft.

I mean that in the best possible way. This movie has so much heart. It’s about second chances, a love of Hollywood, and a love of actors and who they are and what they do.

After making two westerns, Tarantino tells a story about a couple of guys who make westerns, who gave their youths to Hollywood and didn’t get a whole lot in return. Oh, and one of them lives next door to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski in 1969.

**Obligatory spoiler warning. I don’t say what happens but I imply it, and it’s really hard to tell what’s giving away too much on this one.**

I have a friend speculating about whether anyone under thirty will get the references, will know what this is about and what’s going to happen. In my group of three who went to see this, we all pinged to appearance of the Manson Family at different times. For me, as soon as the crowd of willowy hippie girls appeared, dumpster diving and singing sweetly, I knew.  I spent the next three hours in a state of growing dread.

That thing Tarantino does in his movies? That leisurely, excruciating pacing where people are talking and nothing is happening and it’s taking so long but you know, you just know something terrible is about to happen? Probably the best example is early in Inglourious Basterds, when the Nazi officer just keeps talking and the whole time you’re wondering if he knows about the Jewish family hiding under the floor or not.  Tarantino does this to some extent, scene by scene, in all his movies.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — he extends this technique to the entire movie. The whole thing is a leisurely portrait of almost-washed-up actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman turned personal assistant Cliff Booth. About halfway through, Cliff has a run-in with the Manson Family at the ranch. It’s filmed like a western, and it’s creepy and sinister and awful. And Cliff knows this gang is seriously bad news and gets the hell out. Then, months later…

The film flips the goddamn table. My god. I spent three hours sure I knew what was going to happen, and then… I can tell you the instant I realized I didn’t know what was going to happen anymore. It’s gorgeous.

This is all on purpose, by design. Sure, you could cut out a lot of the dialog, the long drives out of the Valley, the self-indulgent interludes. But then it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie, and the massive catharsis when that tension breaks and the blood starts flying and the flame throwers come out wouldn’t be the same.

I think my favorite thing this movie does, though, is humanize Sharon Tate. For fifty years she’s been the victim of this lurid awful crime and nothing else. Here, she gets this big long sequence where she can’t resist grinning up at the theater marque with her name on it. She talks her way in to see the film, and delights in the reactions of the audience to her performance.  This is a woman who loves movies, loves being in them. She’s super relatable and it’s great spending time with her. Margot Robbie’s big grin through this is wonderful and heartbreaking, because you know…you think you know…what’s going to happen to her.

But like I said, this is a movie about second chances.

Now, I want the annotated version.

 

The Space Between Us

July 25, 2019

The Space Between Us:  I was aware of this film when it came out because once again, it vaguely resembles the plot of one of my recent novels, Martians Abroad, i.e. kid born on Mars comes to Earth, chaos ensues. (Like with Voices of Dragons and How to Train Your Dragon, which came out around the same time and are both about a world where humans and dragons don’t get along and then one young human meets a dragon and learns to ride him… seriously, this stuff will drive you nuts if you let it.)

I never got around to watching it because there wasn’t any real buzz about it and too many other things were going on. Stuff, you know.

So I tried watching it.  I turned it off after ten minutes, when the mother dies in childbirth. The mother who is the only woman on this historic mission to Mars and who nobody calls by her title which is “mission commander” but everyone just calls her “miss,” and then it turns out she gets knocked up by accident, because I guess women don’t know how to prevent pregnancy in the near future or something, and I guess the flight surgeons on a very important historic space mission wouldn’t bother to actually give her a medical exam right before the mission, and then Hollywood still thinks the most interesting mother is a dead one. Because it gives the main character angst, don’t you know.

I turned it off. Everything in this was just so dumb. Then I lay in bed trying to fall and sleep and thought, And I bet it turns out that the obnoxious space genius tech guru played by Gary Oldman is the father.

So this morning I read the wikipedia synopsis, and I’m right, he is the father, and the kid comes to Earth to look for him, because the only thing more interesting than a dead mother is a kid looking for his father. And the rest of the movie appears to continue to be really dumb.

I’m so proud of myself for actually turning off a movie when it was clear what direction we were going. Saved two hours there.

Instead, I watched The Last Starfighter for the twenty millionth time , and this time what made me really happy is how supportive everyone is of Alex. Maggie never gets mad at him for playing the Starfighter game. All the people in the trailer park actually want him to leave and do great things. They may not understand the game but they’re all really excited when he beats the record.

It’s just so nice, you know?

 

Summer update

July 23, 2019

It’s that point in the month where I realize I’d better get going on all the things I said I was going to finish by the end of the month.

A couple of reminders:

The Jean Cocteau Cinema has signed books by me for sale.

My long review of the film Tolkien, and mini-critique of the genre of Idyllic English Schoolboys Do Things, is up at Lightspeed.

I’m behind on movies. I don’t even know what’s showing, which isn’t like me at all.

TV? I’m trying to catch up on last year’s season of Supergirl, that’s how far behind I am. And guys, I gotta tell you, it’s a slog. The standard 23 episode season isn’t really designed to be binged, and feels interminable after the short streaming seasons. It’s like you need that whole week between episodes to forget just how bad it all is, but when you watch episodes back to back, all you see is how bad it is.

I still like the show’s positive ethos. I love that it has rooms full of professional, sharp women solving problems. But holy cow there are times when all these characters are dumb as bricks. The entire plot is built on characters keeping stupid secrets from each other for stupid reasons. There’s a point where Kara is explaining why she can’t tell Lena she’s Supergirl, and I’m thinking, “Lena is literally the only person in that room who doesn’t know, how the hell does this make any sense.”

And the heavy-handed “issue” episodes are groaningly, agonizingly bad. Like, fine, include issues. Have ripped-from-the-headlines stories, sure. But having the characters deliver lectures cribbed from FB memes? Having deep important issues suddenly be relevant for all of ten minutes and then never mentioned again?  It’s painful. Just stop.

I think for next season I’m going to watch all the DC crossover episodes and skip the rest.

This is why it’s been really hard for me to find something to watch. Apparently my tolerance has bottomed out this summer.

 

Lebowski Thor

July 8, 2019

I’d meant to post about this earlier but then June got completely out of control. So I’ll post about it now. By far the most popular cosplay at Denver not-Comic Con was “Lebowski Thor” from Avengers: Endgame. There were dozens of those guys walking around in bathrobes and overgrown beards, guts hanging out over pajama bottoms.

It’s as if thousands of dudes with the proverbial “dad bod” watched the film with growing elation realizing that yes, finally, they can cosplay a superhero who looks just like them!  (And as I saw pointed out elsewhere, now maybe some of these guys understand the importance of inclusion and representation just a little bit more now.)

I guess San Diego Comic Con is this weekend. I won’t be there, but maybe someone can let me know if “Lebowski Thor” is as a big a thing there.

 

 

 

A lot of thoughts and feels with this one, and I’m having trouble anymore separating my expectations of MCU films from the actual films, and that’s partly because these films are so good at engaging with expectations, both to fulfill and overturn them.  And I also keep insisting on pulling back the curtain and looking at the scaffolding. Like, when we’re halfway through the film and I realize we’ve already seen every single moment from the trailers and we still have a ton of movie left, and that’s on purpose because the trailers are kind of a big fat misdirection. . .

I may already have said too much.

Like a lot of sequels, it doesn’t have quite the surprise and delight of the first one — Homecoming was just so, so good at combining the teen comedy with superheroes, and it was just so startling and wonderful because we’d never really seen anything like it. Far From Home does the same thing, but we’ve seen it before, so it’s still wonderful but not quite as startling.

It’s a sequel, it builds on Endgame. This is another chapter in the same story. Peter has a character arc, and he’s being set up as the core of whatever sequence comes next. He has survivor’s guilt, a huge amount of insecurity. It’s a different arc than any of the original Avengers’ arcs, and that’s good.

On one level the story is very, very trope-y, and I can’t really talk about the main trope in question without spoiling the whole thing. Sorry for being cryptic. It’s a trope we’ve seen before, a couple of times in big movies. But this film handles it so well I don’t even care that we’ve seen it before. One of the reasons we (or at least I) love superhero films is because of the tropes, and in this case it’s very well integrated in the into the existing world and stories.

In both movies, Peter Parker is dealing with Tony Stark’s legacy, the good and the bad. Peter is being set up as Tony’s heir — kind of against his will, but he’s really the only person standing in the right spot. That means being a hero, that means getting his hands on all this tech. But it also means dealing with Tony’s messes, the unintended consequences of Tony’s work. Tony made a lot of messes, it turns out.

And the post-credits scenes are back. And they’ve blown the story wide open again. There was a moment heading into this where I wasn’t sure I wanted any more MCU. Endgame was a really nice closing chapter. Satisfying. Did I really need more?

Yeah, I guess I do.

 

This is your last chance to sign up for my online workshop on writing superheroes, which happens tomorrow!

And on that note, while I’m mostly indifferent to Dark Phoenix, didn’t go see it, and think McAvoy and Fassbender deserved better because I like their takes on Professor X and Magneto, I am secretly pleased that the studio execs on this film can’t go around claiming it flopped because “people just don’t like superhero movies featuring women.”