MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) – They can still make ’em like they used to

With a sequel that comes over a half-century after the original movie, there are bound to be nitpickers who can find nothing better to do than pick it apart. Are the songs in Mary Poppins Returns as memorable as those in Mary Poppins (1964)? Is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s attempt at a British accent as inauthentic as Dick Van Dyke’s was in the first film? These are questions best left to movie historians. For a movie such as this, the only valid question is, does it work on your terms personally? For me, it was practically perfect.

There are two kinds of Disney movies. There are the silly ones which practically declare from the outset that they’re harmless falderdash (The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor). Then there are the best kind of Disney movies that unashamedly aim straight for your heart (the Disney cartoon classics, the original Santa Clause, and yes, even Mary Poppins). There was every reason to believe that Mary Poppins Returns, even if well-intentioned, would end up in the first batch. But a half-hour into the new movie, I got that Omigaw-I’m-a-kid-again feeling, and I knew I’d been sucked in.

The movie’s setting is about 20 years after that of the first film. Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) are now adults but still live together in their old family home, Jane seeing to the needs of Michael and his three children — John (Nathanael Saleh), Anabel (Pixie Davies), and Georgie (Joel Dawson) — since Michael’s wife died the previous year.

A pair of bank lawyers visit the Banks to inform them that they have five days to pay back a loan that Michael took against the house, or they will be evicted from it. Eventually, they realize that their father owned shares in the bank, and those could be used to pay off the loan. If only they can find those shares — and have them recognized by Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), Michael’s boss at the bank and an old family acquaintance who might not be as kind as he initially appears.

With the Banks family in dire straits again, there is nothing for it but for magical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to come floating into their lives again — this time via a kite, in one of this sequel’s many wonderful nods to the first movie. And Blunt takes this ethereal character, chucks any fears about comparisons to Julie Andrews out the window, and makes it her own. Blunt’s Poppins is nicely nonchalant about the many miracles she manages to perform for the Bankses. She also plays Mary a bit more vainly than Andrews did — but if you could go flying on an umbrella and turning bathtubs into oceans, wouldn’t you be a bit smug too?

The movie feels like, not just classic Disney, but classic movies where everyone involved seems to have given everything to make their movie the best possible. Co-writer/choreographer/director Rob Marshall knows his way around a movie musical (Chicago) and was the right person to helm this — its two hours fly by. The songs, co-written by Hollywood music wizard Marc Shaiman, invite comparison to The Sherman Brothers’ 1964 score, and they’re mostly worthy of that comparison. (If you don’t get a lump in your throat when Poppins comforts the children about their late mother with “The Place Where the Lost Things Go,” you’re a stronger moviegoer than I am.) The old-fashioned, full-bodied animation-and-live-action sequences dazzled me more than anything since Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

And that cast! Miranda plays Jack, a street lamp lighter who serves as Mary’s merry Greek chorus. Maybe his British accent isn’t perfect, but his enthusiasm more than makes up for it. One critic described the three Banks children as “somewhat undifferentiated,” with which I heartily disagree. Saleh, Davies, and especially Dawson are the best sort of child actors, ones who act like real children instead of cutesy moppets. Finally, there are three Big Actor supporting roles that will be a delight to anyone who doesn’t already know about them, so I’ll skip the spoiler and let you discover them for yourself.

The genre of Hollywood movie musical has gone the way of the Hollywood Western — mostly moribund, but occasionally done once more just to show that it can still be done. Mary Poppins Returns shows they can still be done in the grand old style, and that they ought to be done a lot more often.

R.I.P., 20th Century-Fox


Above is the opening to the 1957 comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? In it, Tony Randall and his one-man band render Alfred Newman’s famous theme music for 20th Century-Fox — a movie studio that sadly, as of this writing, has only a few more hours of existence left in Hollywood. It is the victim of another monumental buyout by The Mouse House, a/k/a The Walt Disney Co.

Contemporary film buffs of a certain age (those at puberty and just beyond, I’d say) probably can’t imagine why anyone would get misty-eyed over the death of a movie studio. But for film buffs like me, there was a certain majesty to the old movie intros with their sophisticated logos — Paramount with its frosty mountain, Universal with its outer-space view of the Earth, and Fox with its flashy searchlights. If nothing else, it meant that the given movie studio was doing its best to give you some bang for their buck.

It seemed like a gentler era, too, before conglomerates were sweeping up everything in their paths. Back in his glory days of Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks told an interviewer that he was proud to work at Fox because it wasn’t a company, it was a movie studio. Of course, that interview was conducted in 1978, long before News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch decided to make Fox one more weapon in his monetary war chest.

(Do you ever get the feeling that all the buyer-uppers are buying up the lesser buyer-uppers? I fear that someday, every company under the sun will be owned by a supergroup named “America, Inc.”)

In any case, for no good reason, I’ve decided to catalog the titles of all of the 20th Century-Fox films that have meant a great deal to me over the years. Not all of them are acknowledged classics, but they’ve all wormed their way into my movie memories for some good reason. I have reviewed many of these movies on my previous blog, and when I have, I have included links to those reviews. (If you have any Fox favorites that I’ve missed, feel free to list them in the “Comments” section below.)

The Gang’s All Here

The Ox-Bow Incident

Laura

Laurel & Hardy’s The Bullfighters

Kiss of Death

Gentlemen’s Agreement

Cry of the City

Unfaithfully Yours

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Deadline – U.S.A.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The Girl Can’t Help Ith

The King and I

The Hustler

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Hello, Dolly!

Sounder

Young Frankenstein

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

All That Jazz

The Empire Strikes Back

The Stunt Man

Raising Arizona

Die Hard

The Simpsons Movie

THE BEATLES (a/k/a “The White Album”) (1968) – The Case Against


I’m sorry if this ends up reading like clickbait. But ever since the 50th-anniversary edition of The Beatles’ White Album was released, online critics and bloggers have been falling all over themselves claiming that it’s The Beatles’ best album. As a lifelong fan of The Fab Four, I’m here to declare:

It isn’t.

Now, some troll is inevitably going to write to me and say, “So you think you could do better?” The obvious answer is, Never. I’m no songwriter, and even if you counted my blog and other things I’ve written, none of my writing has any of the stamina or staying power of The Beatles at their best (which, I’m quick to admit, includes most of The White Album).

But I would say that for one of The Beatles’ albums to be considered great, it has to have no lulls whatsoever on it. (That’s obviously a matter of subjective taste, anyway. But in that category, I would include Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road, just for starters.) So please allow me to note some bumps in The White Album‘s journey to greatness.

Let me state the obvious debit first. No album which contains “Revolution 9” can possibly be called great. In fact, if you want to dare to call it a song, I’d quickly label it The Beatles’ worst. After all of John Lennon’s great work in experimental sound (e.g., “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”), he throws a bunch of random sonic images at us and tries to define it as the soundtrack to a revolution. I don’t buy it for a moment. (For one thing, I’m sure the revolution will end with a bang, not with “Block that kick!”)

Someone has actually taken the time to post the “lyrics” to “Revolution 9” on Google. Take a moment to read those lyrics (because I know you haven’t listened to the song all the way through, if you could possibly help it), and then try to convince me that it is any kind of fully formulated vision, however surreal (a la “I Am the Walrus”). It just doesn’t wash.

Now, as for the rest of the album, I’ll simply list the items that I think keep the album from reaching the status of greatness. If anybody cares, I’ll do a follow-up blog in which I elaborate on the album’s virtues (of which, again, I feel there are many).

John: He has many great songs on this album. But five points to anyone who can explain to me the meanings of “Cry Baby Cry,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey,” and the first two-thirds of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” (For no good reason, I consider the final section of that song to be sublime.)

Paul: “Wild Honey Pie,” not so great, even if it’s only a 52-second outtake anyway.

George: He pretty much made his bones with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and good for him. But then there’s the droning “Long Long Long,” with an ending that’s like scraping fingernails across a blackboard.

Ringo: “Don’t Pass Me By”– a step up from his earlier work, but hardly an inclusion to make the album worthy of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So there’s my take on The White Album. I welcome all reasonable dissenters.

That is, if you become naked…

THE LAUREL & HARDY BLOGATHON – The End

This is the first blogathon we’ve ever held where all of the entrants submitted their entries on the first day! (Of course, it helps if you have only six entrants.) Therefore, it is with a mixture of pride and regret that we are already presenting



Click on each of the blogs’ names below to link to their individual blogathon entries. Great tributes to Laurel & Hardy by all!

The Laurel & Hardy Blog tips its hat to a couple of L&H silent short subjects, Early to Bed and You’re Darn Tootin’.

Another Laurel & Hardy Blog interviews L&H superfan Chris Seguin about his spirited defense of L&H’s final theatrical film, Atoll K.

Caftan Woman takes a loving look at Hog Wild, in which The Boys attempt to install a radio antenna on Mr. Hardy’s roof.

Movies Silently takes a look at Laurel & Hardy in the unusual roles of a Scottish visitor and his harried uncle, in Putting Pants on Philip.

The Scribe Files gives a listen to some rare but well-worth-seeking-out CDs of Laurel & Hardy’s stage appearances in America and overseas.

Queerly Different reviews cinema’s most recent look at Laurel & Hardy, the touching bio-film Stan & Ollie.

And finally, your faithful correspondent offers his take on Laurel & Hardy’s surprise 1954 appearance on the live TV show “This Is Your Life.”

Lastly, we promised to have a drawing for the blogathon’s participants, the winner receiving a copy of Charles Barr’s enjoyable 1967 study of Laurel & Hardy’s movies. And the winner of that book is the Laurel & Hardy Blog (the one in the Netherlands), to whom we have sent that book today.

Even more lastly, your faithful correspondent (hereafter known as me) cannot resist one final plug of my exhaustive L&H podcast, Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts — 68 episodes in which I review their movies and anything else L&H-related that I could think of. Click on the above image to link to the podcast.

Thanks to all of our wonderful blogathon participants and readers. We hope you’ll bookmark this blog, as there will be other wonderful things coming from it in the months to come!

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) – Hitch a ride on this fabulous movie

The following is my second of two entries in Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, The Blogathon, being co-hosted by the blogs Classic Movie Hub and Once Upon a Screen on March 2 & 3, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on the amazing careers of this acting (her) and writing (him) couple!

Movie legend has it that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, as punishment from their studios’ bosses, were forced into doing It Happened One Night. All movie stars should be punished so rewardingly.

Colbert plays Ellie, a rich kid on the run from her father, who is trying to prevent her from a disastrous marriage to a similarly well-off snob. En route in Miami, she runs into Peter (Gable), an out-of-work reporter who immediately recognizes her as the wanted rich fugitive. Peter blackmails Ellie into staying with him so that he can turn her in and get the scoop of a lifetime. No prizes for guessing whether this odd couple will eventually get under each other’s skin.

From such simple stuff are movie legends made. This winning romantic comedy is practically a blueprint for decades of movie romances to follow, from Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (also starring Colbert) to 1990’s Pretty Woman. Gable and Colbert seem to be having a rollicking good time. The PC police will sneer at the scene where Ellie eventually begs Peter to stay with her; the rest of the audience will be sniffling in their hankies.

This is also a movie that often ends the sentence “This is the movie where…” First, there’s the iconic scene where Ellie hitches a ride for her and Peter by uncovering a well-turned leg (shown below). There’s the famous “Wall of Jericho” bedtime scene where Clark Gable takes off his shirt, displays nothing underneath, and immediately sends national sales of T-shirts plummeting. Lastly, there’s the fact that It Happened One Night was the first (and for four decades, the only) movie to sweep all five major Oscars — Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, and Director (a guy named Frank Capra).

Alternately hilarious and touching, It Happened One Night hasn’t dated a bit in 85 years.

(If you liked this blogathon entry, click here to read my first entry, about the Fay Wray starrer King Kong.)

KING KONG (1933) – Who couldn’t love the big ape?

The following is my first of two entries in Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, The Blogathon, being co-hosted by the blogs Classic Movie Hub and Once Upon a Screen on March 2 & 3, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on the amazing careers of this acting (her) and writing (him) couple!

Like most baby-boomers, I fell in love with the original King Kong after viewing it on local TV. I put off buying the deluxe 2005 DVD version so that my family would have a gift to get for me at Christmastime that year. I was dying to pass the legend of this movie on to my then-9-year-old son, but such are latter-day attention spans that I actually had to make him promise me an afternoon where he’d sit and watch it with me. He watched it again three times after that.

Sure, the movie has flaws. I’ll tick some off for you. Some of the dialogue is stilted in a way that only 1930s scripting can be. (“Why…I guess I love you!” declares sailor Jack Driscoll [Bruce Cabot] to “bothersome” female passenger Ann Darrow [Fay Wray], with all the passion of a shipman who’s discovered an extra bottle of hootch on board.) As befits the movie’s then-revolutionary stop-motion animation technique, monster ape King Kong’s fur often wavers from frame to frame, in much the same way as Gromit’s doggie features hardly stand still from one frame to the next in the clay-animated Wallace and Gromit feature movie.

But you just gotta love the movie’s fearlessness. Without an ounce of irony, the non-real Kong gets his own movie credit as “the eighth wonder of the world.” There’s no question that, as movie impresario Carl Denham, Robert Armstrong is whole ham –- yet that’s what makes the character so wonderful. Most “fearless” movie heroes these days (paging Bruce Willis!) have only a steel chin and a sneer to offer the movie camera. Denham is not only fearless, he’s enthusiastic about it, as if he just can’t help putting his entire crew in peril just to get a good close-up.

Fay Wray, of course, immortalized herself as a scream queen in her role as Kong’s temptress Ann Darrow. But even her screams are fun, because they’re so genuine. It’s a role that she could have conceivably turned into a camp classic (much as poor Jessica Lange did in the 1976 version); after all, in the end we know she’s caterwauling to a clay model just a few feet tall. But Wray really is sincere enough to convince us she’s getting manhandled by a perilous monster. My only regret is that she didn’t end up showing just a little emotion for this overgrown kid who eventually lays down his life for her (which, thanks to Naomi Watts, was one of the few elements that Peter Jackson’s 2005 version did get right, IMHO).

Even the deaths in the movie aren’t terribly painful. When Kong shakes a huge log where some of his would-be captors are clinging for dear life, and many of them fall to the gorge below, it’s more like the roller-coaster ride the movie was intended to be; the poor fellas are merely the 30s predecessors to all those nameless extras who got evaporated on the original “Star Trek.” Contrast that with the endless emphasis on graphic violence and death in Peter Jackson’s version (which traumatized my son so much that we had to exit the movie after it was only one-third finished).

Finally, there’s Max Steiner’s ground-breaking musical score. At the advent of talkies, it was unheard of for an entire orchestral score to accompany a movie’s story, and if you doubt the staying power of Steiner’s music (he went on to score classics as diverse as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca), listen to one of the latter-day music-only CDs of Kong‘s soundtrack. It holds up as well as any movie score of the 1930’s and beyond; it’s like an old-time radio show in itself.

King Kong inspired generations of filmmakers as the ultimate example of how a movie could breathe life (and terror) into an inanimate object. Ironically, until Star Wars came along, most Hollywood movies had forgotten how to combine thrills and fun without gore –- a lesson that King Kong should have taught them long ago.

(If you liked this blogathon entry, click here to read my first ‘thon entry about It Happened One Night, whose screenplay was written by Robert Riskin.)