Mary Poppins Returns Review

After a 54-year gap between the release of both films, Mary Poppins Returns now ranks among the longest gaps between movie sequels (right next to Disney’s own Bambi and Fantasia).

Mary Poppins Returns picks up many years later, as Michael and Jane Banks have grown up, and their parents have long since passed. Michael now owns his parent’s old house; and after the recent death of his wife Michael is in trouble of losing the home to foreclosure. With all his energy put towards figuring out his financial situation, Michael reluctantly enlists in the help of the magical English nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to watch over his three kids. Mary Poppins and the new Banks children then proceed on a magical, exciting adventure that’s fun for the whole family.

Mary Poppins Returns was full of all the childlike wonder and imagination that I desired in Christopher Robin but didn’t get. In the same vein as the original Mary Poppins, this is a great feel good flick that you can watch at any age and still enjoy it all the same.

Even the most skeptical viewer could notice the originality within the story. This so easily could’ve been a simple copy and paste job for Disney to make a quick buck (like so many of their recent remakes). Yet, Mary Poppins Returns was written from the ground up, doing its best to be a faithful sequel while sprinkling its own imaginative ideas throughout.

Several scenes sported bright, vibrant animation that practically leapt off the screen, and it contrasted well with the gray London backdrop of the film.

The song and dance numbers are catchy stand out from each other and are full of that magical Disney whimsy we all love. My personal favorite was Trip a Little Light Fantastic, the song performed by all the lamplighters in the dark streets of London. The beautiful choreography and set design during this number really helped solidify my enjoyment of this film.

I’m sure it was no easy task for Emily Blunt to fill the shoes of Mary Poppins, as Julie Andrews portrayal is considered among Disney’s best characters. Therefore, with great admiration I report that Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins was remarkable. The spirit and charm of the character were captured well, and the so-so characterization was made up for by the acting talent of Blunt.

If I had to identify a weak spot of the movie, it would be William Wilkins, the president of the bank played by Colin Firth. His character is unreasonably rude and without sufficient motivation for being the “bad guy”. Colin Firth does a nice job putting some personality into his role, but ultimately even he couldn’t save this character from the evil corporate banker stereotype.

I also felt, strangely enough, that Mary Poppins services weren’t exactly needed in this story. The Banks children were already well-behaved and their father payed as much attention to them as he possibly could. And Mary Poppins herself tends to be a bigger troublemaker and overall inconvenience than any of the children. It’s a minor nitpick, but this did come to mind every now and then.

Sure, some of the magic is inherently lost in translation, and this simply won’t be as timeless as its predecessor. But I doubt anyone was expecting this to be of the same creative and colorful magnitude as the first Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins Returns was a truly heartwarming experience, and it makes me sad knowing we won’t be getting any clever Disney sequels like this in the foreseeable future. Up next are the remakes of The Lion King, Aladdin, and Dumbo, and none look to be as cheerful, thoughtful, and impassioned as Mary Poppins.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint

Die Hard (1988) Review

Picture this. An everyday guy, trapped in a skyscraper with foreign terrorists, thirty plus hostages (one being his wife), and inept law enforcement making a mess of the place.

Sound familiar? Of course it does, it’s Die Hard!

Even those who haven’t seen the 1988 action classic know the plot, because it’s been replicated time and time again by countless films that only manage to exist in its shadow. Films like Under Siege and White House Down mimic the style and setup of Die Hard but they both that the substance and emotion it brings to the table.

Really, Die Hard is an anomalous movie for me. Outward appearances would chalk it up to be a standard action picture of the 80’s, and not the pinnacle flick of the decade. There’re movies like Aliens, The Terminator and The Empire Strikes Back, yet Die Hard frequently ranks as number one. There’s a reason for that, and I think it starts with the characters.

One thing I’ve always loved about this movie was the villains, mostly because each is unique and memorable despite having minimal screen time and restricted dialogue. There’s the goofy tech guy drilling the vault, the Asian guy who awkwardly grabs the chocolate bar, and the two blonde European brothers with a bloodlust. Where the filmmakers could’ve easily just written in generic bad guys, they instead gave us something a little more.

And who could forget Alan Rickman’s role as Hans Gruber, the charmingly devious mastermind behind the heist. Clad in an expensive suit and tie, Gruber’s a tad cleverer than your average bear. His methodology comes across as sophisticated and complex, and when I first saw Die Hard, I thought his motives would be intricate. Yet, his master plan is quite the contrary, as he’s nothing more than a common thief looking for a big payout. What a villain.

And with that we’re left with John McClane. The badass. The hero. The everyman. There’s no better guy for the job than 1980’s Bruce Willis. With every memorable punch, gun shot, and one liner he makes, I just want to throw my fist in the air and shout machismo nonsense. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator, Willis is an emblem of the masculine hero archetype. But more importantly, he represents a flawed but morally just man willing to sidestep corrupt authority figures in the name of justice. Isn’t that something we all could get behind?

I’ve spent so much time writing about the many personalities that inhabit Die Hard that I didn’t even mention the wonderful writing and direction. The film takes all the right twists and turns, with several reveals that continue to up the ante over time.

One unique thing I’ve always noticed about Die Hard is John McClane’s deteriorating condition as the film progresses. He goes from perfect shape to beaten, battered, and bloodied. That’s something you don’t see even modern action flicks doing too often, and it’s interesting seeing the change in McClane over the span of the movie. Again, it calls back to how much work was put into making Bruce Willis’s character a relatable, tangible human.

You know, there’s an age-old debate about whether this is technically a Christmas movie, since it takes place on Christmas but doesn’t have that much to do with the holiday. While I remain on the “Pro-Christmas” side of things, I think the argument itself speaks to the degree at which people hold Die Hard. It’s pretty much universally held as an action masterpiece, and there aren’t many who criticize its status.

Die Hard is a yearly watch for me, and I recommend it become one for you too.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Ralph Breaks the Internet Review

If there were ever a film I was cautiously optimistic about watching, it’d be Ralph Breaks the Internet. As a huge fan of Wreck-it-Ralph, hearing that there would be a direct sequel was exciting. I mean, the potential is limitless with this kind of flick. But when I heard the plot would focus on current internet trends, my heart skipped a beat. All I could think about was the abominable movie that came out just the previous year, The Emoji Movie. Surely Disney wouldn’t make the same mistake as Sony, right? Right?

Taking place several years after the events of the first Wreck-it-Ralph, we see that all is relatively good in the gaming world for our likable heroes Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). That is, until one day a part breaks on Vanellope’s video game Sugar Rush, causing the arcade owner to unplug it. This leaves many without homes and causes Vanellope to question her place in the pixelated world of the arcade. To fix this mess, she and Ralph decide to travel to the vast, sometimes overwhelming world of the internet, where they hope to order her game a new part on eBay and save the day. Coming across many unique characters and situations in the process.

Making a movie about internet culture is practically a death sentence for your longevity as a film. Make the wrong joke about a fly-by-night app or defunct social media platform, and your movie is suddenly labeled as “dated”. Destined to be either hated or forgotten. Take a look at the most extreme case of this, The Emoji Movie. An embodiment of everything wrong with the internet and social media, it’s become one of the most hated movies of recent years.

It’s no surprise that initially Ralph Breaks the Internet was giving off bad Emoji Movie vibes, as both plots essentially deal with the same topic. Thankfully Ralph handles the topic of internet culture with much more grace, humor, and creativity. All things Wreck-it-Ralph fans are sure to respect in this installment. The visualization of eBay, pop-up ads, and the Google search engine are quite cutesy, and viewers are sure to get a kick out of imagination that went behind them.

This isn’t to say there weren’t references that were DOA, dated on arrival. Numerous jokes simply didn’t work because, as the film itself so bluntly puts it, that was trending fifteen seconds ago. Unless you’re still obsessed with screaming goats, hot pepper challenges, and Fortnite dances, you’ll probably find some of this humor a tad out of touch.

Early on there is a clear side plot established featuring Fix-it Felix Jr. and Calhoun that is immediately abandoned. In fact, we don’t see those characters again until the end of the movie. Not that the film needed a story involving these old side characters, I just found it odd that they teased the audience with a plot thread they had no intention of sticking to.

Regardless of dumped side stories, the true focus of Ralph Breaks the Internet is on the budding (yet soon to be strained) friendship of Ralph and Vanellope. We’re given a lot of great moments between the two, which really fleshes out the characters beyond what was seen in the first movie. Both voice actors bring a lot of well-defined personality to the roles, and the unlikely pair have so much chemistry together it’s kind of mind-boggling to think about.

There’s also a clear message worked in about friends keeping close despite growing apart and having different goals to achieve in life. It’s touching and a little complex, but easy enough to understand for young kids.

And I think that’s where the real strength of Ralph Breaks the Internet lies. Not in the trendy jokes or many callbacks to Disney products, but in the fascinating people that inhabit this very thought out world. Ralph doesn’t rely on past characters and environments to prop up its new story, as we get a whole host of new ones in their place. The film hardly even has a villain per se. The most villainous act in the movie is actually carried out by one of the protagonists, how interesting.

Even with some plot flubs and cringe-filled humor, I feel that Ralph Breaks the Internet is a genuinely solid sequel to a wonderfully imaginative family movie.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

The Grinch Review

Special Order 937 from Illumination Entertainment’s upper management:

“Priority one. Ensure return of cash profit. All creativity secondary. Audience expendable.”

If that Alien reference was to crass or obscure for you, let me clarify. I’m catching on to Illumination Entertainment’s (the makers of Despicable Me, Sing, etc.) business model of putting financial gain before creativity and filmmaking passion. They actively strive to meet the animation industries bare minimum requirements for a passable mainstream picture. The character models and backgrounds they use are cheaply rendered and don’t have a lot of detail, all to save a quick buck. Their stories are average and likely to go for cheap sentimentality to appear emotional and deep.

Case and point, The Grinch.

I’m sure you know the plot to this classic Dr. Seuss story. It takes place in the town of Whoville, inhabited by a group of jolly people that love the Christmas season. Yes, everyone loves Christmas, all except for the mean old Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) who lives atop a mountain with his pet dog Max. Harboring a hatred for all things Christmas, The Grinch devises a plan to steal Christmas by thieving the Who’s holiday gifts and possessions.

A fun, stylish children’s book that rejects consumerism and materialism around Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! becomes a little more relevant with every passing year. This 2018 interpretation of The Grinch doesn’t take much of a stance on anything, and its reason for existing is questionable. Nothing added is new to the story and therefore is quite predictable and bland. It’s the cinematic equivalent to a rice cake. You eat it because it’s filling and not too unhealthy, but it’s still bland and not very tasty.

The Grinch himself isn’t very “grinchy”. He’s more just a slightly irritable jerk than the ultimate antithesis to Christmas joy. Less mean-spirited, more goofball. Heck, The Grinch smiles more than probably every other incarnation of The Grinch put together. I think Illumination did this so that his character would appeal more to young children, but in the Chuck Jones animated version The Grinch looks menacing, and kids love that TV special. And to top it all off, they had Benedict Cumberbatch voice him, which really baffled me. They thought, “Hey, Cumberbatch is a big star that audiences like, have him voice The Grinch!” The problem there is that he doesn’t fit the character well, completely wasting his acting ability.

It’s tragic because there’s some decent voice acting from very talented actors throughout The Grinch, including Cumberbatch. Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, and even Pharrell Williams (who provides the narration) lended their voices for the film. It’s too bad their roles in The Grinch didn’t allow them to utilize their unique acting abilities. All except maybe Kenan, who really gets to be vocally expressive in his role as an obnoxiously jolly individual.

Overall, I believe young children and parents may enjoy the bright colors and “in your face” slapstick humor, but the reality is that this film had so much potential to be something more. Illumination has the talent, money, and resources to pull off something exciting, something magical that is truly memorable for all the right reasons. But with films like The Grinch they play it safe, making a film that’s so sanitized and cautious that there isn’t a truly new idea in sight. And sooner or later their shortcuts are going to reflect in their box office revenue.

I’m fully aware that studio films must be made with a financial profit in mind. Period. But with animation companies like Disney, Laika and DreamWorks there’s at least some give and take with money vs creativity. They take some gambles and put their all into making something people won’t only want to see, but something they can come back to years later and still enjoy. Bottom line, a clear artistic vision is always present with these studios, even if the film isn’t very good. I still go back and watch movies like Coraline, Beauty and the Beast, and Shrek 2. Unfortunately, I can’t see myself going back to view Illumination’s The Grinch ever again.

The Verdict: C-

-Zachary Flint

 

 

 

 

Overlord Review

Don’t you find it frustrating when people compare the quality of one film to that of another? Especially when one is sub-par and the other is regarded as a classic. That’s how I felt going in to Overlord, a film I’ve seen likened to that of 1982’s The Thing as well as Saving Private Ryan, the most brutally realistic depiction of warfare put to screen.

Overlord tells a tale of WWII paratroopers set to airdrop over France the night before the Invasion of Normandy, D-Day. The Allied soldiers have one mission and one mission only: destroy a German radio tower so that the European invasion can be effectively carried out. After their aircraft is shot down before they could reach their target, they are left with only a handful of men to carry on the job. Chief among this squad of soldiers are Cpl. Ford (the battle-hardened leader of the bunch played by Wyatt Russell), Pvt. Boyce (our main protagonist played by Jovan Adepo), and Tibbet (the wisecracking New Yorker stereotype played by John Margaro).

And upon discovering the radio tower, wouldn’t you know it, they uncover an evil Nazi plot involving serums, secret labs, and even zombies. In the words of Indiana Jones, “Nazis. I hate these guys.” Now crunched for time, our heroes must foil a plot with the potential to secure the Third Reich a one thousand year reign.

The truth is, Overlord really isn’t like either of those films I previously mentioned, mainly because it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a full on B movie or a more serious war drama. So, instead it rides the line between earnest and corny, never giving us enough of either to be worth our time. Not that war dramas cannot ever be both silly and serious, as we’ve seen with such films as Inglorious Bastards. But where Bastards intentionally blended the two with clever fiction writing, Overlord is neither artistic enough nor dumb enough to make the silliness work to its benefit.

There are hints of “brothers in arms” kind of emotional filmmaking, but the exaggerated characters were a little too out there for me to take it seriously. The motives and characterization of Cpl. Ford is always fluctuating with no consistency, and Tibbet is too stereotypical to the point where he’s irritating.

There’s also hints of science fiction elements to it that jumble up Wolfenstein and even some straight to SyFy Channel schlock. This stuff is fun whenever it comes up, but engaging moments like these mostly don’t come until towards the tail end of the film.

Around the middle chunk of the Overlord was when things were the slowest, and I didn’t feel like the film was utilizing its time well. Our heroes were too frequently placed in boring situations when they could’ve been off doing something vastly more interesting. What would you rather watch, WWII soldiers fighting zombies, or soldiers hiding in an attic for forty minutes?

The real tragedy of it all is that while the writing and story of Overlord are confused and lacking, there was a lot of potential hidden just beneath the surface. I highly enjoyed how cinematic the directing was, and some of the beautiful shot compositions really display the true horrors of warfare. One scene had the outlines of paratroopers dangling from trees silhouetted against the smoky, burning forest in the background. This moment was both stunning and horrifying, and it stuck with me long after I saw it.

The action and special effects, when we finally witness their full potential in the final act, are quite good and easily the most memorable part of Overlord. This is when the movie becomes fully unhinged, giving audiences this unnerving experience through effective body horror and top notch CGI. There’s zombies, nice set pieces, frightening imagery that made my skin crawl, and just about everything else I had been hoping to see all throughout the picture.

Overlord is clearly a bit of a mixed bag. Like several previous Bad Robot productions, it has very high highs and painfully low lows. Its premise is fascinating and sounds like a naturally exciting story, but the writing sabotaged the film every step of the way.

The Verdict: C

-Zachary Flint

The Old Man & the Gun Review

Some men rob banks just for the heck of it. Because the thrill of the chase is just too pleasing and satisfying to pass on. At least, that was the mindset of Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford), a bank robber and escape artist known for escaping prison more than a dozen times. Tucker was recognized as the guy who commits armed robbery in the kindest and most respectful of ways, all while having a smile on his face.

Depicted here are the later years of Tucker’s life, after he meets a rancher named Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who quickly becomes his love interest. While balancing between his love and criminal lives, he discovers a detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is hot on his trail. And Tucker isn’t far from being caught again.

It’s a quaint little movie, and it peacefully tells its story without the flashiness of other bank heist features. There aren’t any shootouts or elaborate theft plots, just a quiet and well-meaning story told in a compelling and ambient way. In fact, we cleverly never even see Tucker draw a gun on someone, an interesting display of the strong screenwriting.

Robert Redford as Tucker is a genuine actor at the top of his game, and dare I say he overshadows the great performances of Sissy Spacek and Casey Affleck. Every word that leaves his mouth is charming, and it’s hard to believe this sincere old man is a lawbreaker and prison escapee. Yet, even with this knowledge we attach ourselves to and sympathize with Tucker.

At the center of The Old Man & the Gun is a vaguely uplifting tale about aging, and where people derive satisfaction from life. Forrest Tucker continues to steal money to feel alive, perhaps not fully happy living under the normal circumstances of an aging man. John Hunt, the detective tasked with bringing Tucker down, is in the middle of a midlife crisis. A crisis only cured by his desire to discover and capture the elusive criminal. Not a lot is shared in terms of the philosophy of life, but I think the average viewer can take plenty meaning from it.

The Old Man & the Gun is most easily described as a boring movie that keeps you entertained. It sounds paradoxical, but just like the slow-moving individuals the film depicts, The Old Man & the Gun is doing everything other powerful dramas of our time do. Just, at a lot slower pace.

The Verdict: A-

-Zachary Flint

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Review

I am completely exhausted of the zombie craze, and it’s not an overstatement to suggest that others are too. For years the zombie has become increasingly embedded in our culture, with an influx of television shows, movies, and video games all about them. Many use the same plot formula and clichés, while others try to add their own blend of creativity to this oddly wide-open genre.

In the wake of the zombie craze, I feel it’s important to go back and understand where this obsession with the undead first started, or at least when it became popular.

Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first film to use a zombie. In fact, I remember several zombie-ish films like White Zombie and The Last Man on Earth. Despite that, Night of the Living Dead did give us the modern interpretation of a zombie. They’re actually not even called zombies in the film, rather they are referred to as “ghouls”.

Released in 1968 and directed by George Romero, Night of the Living Dead is known for its explicit gore and grainy realism. It stars Judith O’Dea and Duane Jones as survivors immediately thrusted into a random apocalyptic event. The undead have risen, and our everyday heroes are trapped inside a small farmhouse surrounded by cannibalistic evil. Who will live and who will die?

Our characters aren’t completely void of intelligence. They argue and squabble over the situation they’re in, and what the best course of action will be for the group. Should they stay and barricade the house, or take their chances outside on the road? At one point the argument goes so far it results in a woman being punched directly in the face (not unprovoked, of course). The characters all think for themselves, and therefore feel like real people trapped in a real situation.

Some sequences are leisurely paced by today’s standards, yet there’s a certain level of charm to this I admire. You must remember that Night of the Living Dead established many of the zombie tropes and clichés that we take for granted. How a zombie behaves, how to kill one, and even how to protect yourself; all common zombie movie scenarios that Night of the Living Dead pioneered. In other undead films these aspects are all assumed and therefore glossed over, whereas here everything comes as a slow realization that must be explained through exposition and televised emergency broadcasts. All of which adds to the terrors of the unknown.

The most uncomfortable, disturbing scene is when the ghouls pull the mangled guts and remains of a couple from a truck. The ghouls then precede to hunch over and gruesomely devour what’s left of them. Apparently, Romero obtained large quantities of real meat from the local butcher for the specific scene, and its authenticity pays off. This moment (as well as many other tense scenes) is accompanied by vile, minimalist sound effects that really drive home the horrors.

Each of Romero’s zombie flicks have an overarching theme that to some extent lingers over the film. Like American consumerism in Dawn of the Dead or the birth of internet culture in Diary of the Dead, relevant social satire persisted (and to varying effects).

In Night of the Living Dead, it’s all about race. To a modern viewer it would not immediately appear so, at least not until the surprise ending that’s as tragic as it is shocking. To those who saw Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, the racial message was much clearer and more obvious. Casting Duane Jones as a Black man in the leading role was revolutionary and bold for the time, and his unjust demise is rightfully upsetting. My own realization of the film’s true intents wasn’t until the credits, where we see Duane dragged out of the house by hooks, and his limp body thrown onto a bonfire.

Some people retrospectively call Night of the Living Dead boring, but I believe it maintains its spot as one of best, and most important horror films to date. I honestly find myself much more scared of it now than when I was younger, and I think that’s attributed to my appreciation of the genre. Night of the Living Dead utilizes its unique plot and style, mixes it with creepy sights and sounds, and gives the audience one truly frightening experience. It’s a film I continue to go back to time and time again and gain a little more respect for it with each viewing.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint