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Non-Review Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns largely accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Mary Poppins Returns is a belated sequel to the original film, and very clearly – and very strongly – takes that original film as its major influence. Indeed, many of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Mary Poppins Returns are carried over directly from the previous film. Mary Poppins Returns is visually inventive, narratively accessible, highly unfocused, and episodic in structure. These are all aspects that it shares with the beloved family classic that spawned it, for better and for worse.

The nanny’s state.

There is an endearing energy in Mary Poppins Returns, and a comforting nostalgia. Indeed, Mary Poppins Returns to the sort of film that was already endangered when Mary Poppins was released, the cinematic equivalent of vaudeville entertainment; a collection of largely isolated sketches tied together by the thinnest of string, serving as a showcase for the creative talents of everybody involved from the performers to the animators to the set designers. Mary Poppins Returns comes remarkably close to capturing the spirit and the appeal of the original.

However, Mary Poppins Returns struggles slightly to balance its fidelity for (and veneration of) the original with the demands of a modern family blockbuster, the film occasionally caught in the push-and-pull of familiarity and modernity. It doesn’t quite work, but it gets close enough for those craving an old-fashioned feel-good family film.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

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Into the Dark: New Year, New You (Review)

Into the Dark is the new anthology series from Blumhouse.

A horror anthology series seemed inevitable. There is a rich tradition of television series built around using the anthology format to tell horror stories; The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt. More than that, recent years have seen a resurgence in the popularity of anthology television. This is most obvious in the seasonal anthology structure of series like American Crime Story or American Horror Story, but is also reflected in the popularity and success of series like Black Mirror or Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.

New year is the perfect time for… don’t make me say it

Horror is particularly suited to the anthology format. After all, having regular characters in a familiar setting tends to dilute both the suspense and the dread that runs through so much horror. The anthology format allows for a variety of characters, locations, formats and themes. Beyond that, Into the Dark is built around ninety-minute episodes, meaning that the series functions as an anthology of holiday-themed horror stories all telling self-contained tales.

Into the Dark is an effective reminder of just how much the medium of television has changed in recent years. Is Into the Dark best thought of as a television series or six feature films? The episodes are released online at Hulu. Unlike other net-native series Into the Dark eschews both the “all at once” binge model favoured by Netflix and the “one week at a time” approach that defines network television. Episodes are released when appropriate, rather than adhering to a rigid structure. It is an illustration of how fluid media is at the moment.

Pushed to the edge.

As the title implies, New Year, New You is the New Year entry in the series. Pooka! had been released for Christmas earlier in the month. New Year, New You is anchored in the themes of the holiday, in the ideas of renewal and reinvention. This is an interesting and audacious approach for a horror story to take. Certainly, New Year is a holiday that does not lend itself to horror as readily as Halloween or even Thanksgiving, and lacks the heightened irony of building a horror story around Christmas.

Perhaps accounting for this, New Year, New You leans heavily into dark comedy. The film does not work entirely consistently, effectively transitioning between three separate modes of horror within its ninety-minute runtime. There is very little novel or innovative to be found structurally in New Year, New You, which blazes through the familiar horror movie clichés with little in the way of insight or energy. There are moments when New Year, New You works rather well, particularly as it embraces absurdity in its third act. However, it is just too unfocused and uneven.

Deal with it.

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109. Star Wars (#22)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, this week joined by special guests Marianne Cassidy and Grace Duffy, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, George Lucas’ Star Wars.

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, the Empire and the Rebellion struggle for control of the cosmos. Against this backdrop, three unlikely heroes ascend, embarking upon a mythic journey that will reveal dark secrets and promise new hope.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 22nd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Doctor Who: Series Eleven (or Thirty-Seven) (Review/Retrospective)

And so the Chris Chibnall era begins.

Any discussion of the Chris Chibnall era must begin with an acknowledgement that it is, by any measure, a commercial success. Even allowing for erosion over the course of the season, the overnight ratings are appreciably up on where they were during the Moffat era. This is particularly true in the United States, where the show is thriving on BBC America. More than that, these new viewers are younger and female, indicating that the efforts to revitalise the show have been largely successful in attracting a new audience to a series that has been on the air for ten seasons (over one hundred and forty episodes) over thirteen years.

More than that, the series has survived an incredible transition. In theory, the casting of a female lead in a major long-running science-fiction property really shouldn’t be that big a deal. (After all, the advertising neatly summarised it as “about time.”) However, one need only look at the controversy around things like increasing the diversity in mainstream comic books or even the backlash over Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi in order to see how easy it is to start a culture war. Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, and her widespread acceptance speaks well to Whittaker and Chibnall, and to fans as a whole.

There is a catch, however. As much as the eleventh season has been a commercial success by any measure, it has also been a massive creative disappointment. The eleventh season of Doctor Who is very stylishly produced. There is a credible argument to be made that these ten episodes are the best that the show has ever looked. However, it is also the most generic that the series has ever been. From its earliest days, the series has been defined by a hint of madness and insanity, wonder and awe. The eleventh season of Doctor Who strips all of that out, looking like any other successful science-fiction series. That’s disappointing.

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Non-Review Review: Boy Erased

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Boy Erased is the amount of faith that writer and director (and supporting actor) Joel Edgerton puts in the material at hand.

Boy Erased is based on a memoir written by Garrard Conley, offering a fictionalised account of the writer’s time in gay conversion therapy in rural conservative America. The film is fiction to the extent that the names have been changed; Garrard Conley becomes Jared Eamons. However, Boy Erased never tries to disguise its influences or to assert ownership of the story. The end of the film includes pictures of the real-life inspirations for various characters, often illustrating how uncanny the film’s casting had been.

Bedfellows.

More than that, perhaps as a nod to the increased self-awareness within these sorts of stories, the film hints at its own fictionalisation. The article and book that Jared decides to write towards the end of Boy Erased is very plainly the basis of the film that audience is watching. There is something intriguing in that, in the way that Boy Erased folds itself into its own narrative. The ending of Boy Erased is rooted in the characters responding to the story that Jared has written of his experiences, a clever and reflexive narrative choice that is consciously (and shrewdly) underplayed.

However, the fact that this is the closest that Boy Erased comes to a subversive or deconstructive moment only underscores the matter-of-factness with which Edgerton’s handled the material. Outside of using the origins of the film to provide the basis for a third-act catharsis within the film, Edgerton takes a very straightforward approach to this story. He never seems particularly interested in bending the narrative out of shape or of heightening particular elements for dramatic tension.

Syke out.

In its own weird way, Boy Erased feels decidedly conservative for a contemporary awards film. It is much less energised or dynamic than other similar works, such as the addiction drama Beautiful Boy starring Lucas Hedges’ Lady Bird co-star Timothée Chalamet. This creative restraint is not a criticism in any way; quite the opposite. Edgerton trusts the story that he has been given, and trusts his cast to deliver. Boy Erased is not a showy or ostentatious piece of work, instead a film constructed to specification with care and craft.

Boy Erased is a film that exists primarily as a vehicle for its subject and for its cast, and that is a credit to Edgerton’s approach to the material.

They said that he needed this, but it couldn’t be father from the truth.

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New Podcast! On “Filibuster #147” Talking “Christopher Nolan: A Critical Study of the Films” with Lee Hutchinson and Dallas King

I had the good fortune to stop by the latest Filibuster to chat about my latest book with Lee Hutchinson and Dallas King. Lee and Dallas were, as ever, gracious hosts and t was a joy to discuss Nolan for an hour with two fans of contemporary cinema on their last podcast of the year. I hope you’ll give it a listen.

You can listen to the podcast directly at the Filibuster website, but you can also listen to it directly below. You can also buy Christopher Nolan: A Critical Study of the Film as a print or ebook from a variety of online (and bricks and mortar) stores now.

 

Non-Review Review: Aquaman

Aquaman is not a disaster on the scale of Justice League. It is perhaps closer to Green Lantern.

This comparison makes a certain amount of sense. Both Aquaman and Green Lantern are defined by the influence of writer Geoff Johns. Johns is an interesting figure, having broken into the entertainment world through film. He famously worked as a personal assistant to Richard Donner. However, Johns is best known for his work in comic books, particularly at DC when he enjoyed long character-defining runs on properties like Justice Society of America, The Flash and Green Lantern. A controversial figure, Johns is a strong writer with a great sense of a property’s core appeal.

Sink or swim time.

However, Johns’ skill with comic books does not translate to cinema. Green Lantern was largely influenced by Johns’ own work on the title, which remains a highlight of DC’s twenty-first century output. The feature film employed Johns’ characterisation of Hal Jordan, ported over a lot of his revamped mythology for the character, and even employed one of his own creations as the primary villain. However, a good comic book run did not translate to a good film. Green Lantern was more focused on being a faithful adaptation of the comic than a satisfying film in its own right.

Aquaman suffers from the same fundamental issue. The movie is packed to the gill with continuity references, particularly to Johns’ reworking and reimagining of the character, which has been repackaged as an omnibus collection to mark the release of the film. Aquaman features an incredibly dense mythology that is often delivered via awkward exposition dump, with characters bouncing between long tiring world-building dialogue scenes and epic computer-generated spectacle. Ironically, there is no room for any of this to breathe.

A Mera mistep-a.

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