Tag Archives: classic movie

“Mary Poppins Returns” is a low-flying kite

Mary Poppins as a character has loomed large over Disney’s cannon ever since her inception. It’s a bit surprising, given Disney’s track record of dusting off, refurbishing and remaking all of their IPs, that it’s taken this long for her to return to the big screen. And when you throw in Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meryl Streep and Rob Marshall, it’s enough to quantify “Mary Poppins Returns” as an event movie. The end result is more of a mixed bag, but the familiarity of the story and its themes compensates for many of its shortcomings.

Following much in the same vein as other soft reboots, “Mary Poppins Returns” is very much the same story as its predecessor. This time it is Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), now grown up, who has lost his sense of inner child as his wife has died and his home is about to be foreclosed. His sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), tries to help, but his three children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathaneal Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), find themselves lost and lacking imagination. Enter in Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), here to save the day as it is, along with admirer lamp lighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

The idea of another soft reboot is a tad sad. It’s bad enough that sequels have proliferated the marketplace, but so many of them simply repeat the plot points of earlier films. Something different that tests the formula while remaining true in spirit to the original is the recipe to creating a memorable, worthwhile sequel. “Mary Poppins Returns” gets the spirit right, but simply retreads with plot.

What’s most surprising about the film is how old school it feels. With its old style dancing and singing and slow sensibilities, it reflects the time management and temperament of a 1960s film like its predecessor. Musical sequences last for several minutes and have old-fashioned dance numbers and wide shots that emphasize an entire set. On one hand, it’s refreshing to see a commitment to an older style and a film that feels different. On the other hand, it also creates a somewhat boring movie where whole sections of story feel unimportant. The mind wanders.

What the film has going for it are strong visuals and music. Director Rob Marshall has always been able to create engaging set pieces in his musical films from “Chicago” to “Into the Woods.” Composer and songwriter Marc Shaiman crafted some memorable, if not quite comparable to the original, songs that are strong additions to the Mary Poppins mythos.

All in all, the film is carried by the actors who shine with charisma, from the likeable kids to Ben Whishaw’s earnestness to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s terribly charming cockney accent to Emily Blunt’s brisk manner imbued with love. They elevate a film that suffers from some uneven moments and pacing issues yet excels with optimistic tone and visual splendor.


Movie Essentials: The Godfather and the Godfather Part II

There is little to be written about the first and second Godfather movies that hasn’t been written before. They are the most popular movies in American culture, having revolutionized a Hollywood system that was dying off in the early 1970s and presenting a unique picture of not only mob life, but a story of America itself.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) never wanted to be a part of his father, Vito’s (Marlon Brando), illegal mob business. A war veteran of World War II, he is in love with a pretty girl, Kay (Diane Keaton), and has his whole life in front of him. He is still attached to his family, his hot headed brother Sonny (James Caan), his meek brother Fredo (John Cazale), his adopted brother Tom (Robert Duvalle) and his sister Connie (Talia Shire). When his father is shot and nearly murdered, it is up to Michael to save the family. By voluntarily killing his father’s near-assassins, Michael is thrown down a dark road that leads him to becoming the next head of the Corleone crime family.

By the start of The Godfather Part II, Michael has taken complete control of the empire and eliminated the other rival families. When a plot against his own life is foiled, he seeks those responsible, a path that draws him back to his brother, Fredo, and a very difficult collision between business and family. Haunted by the strength of his father, we are also presented with a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) and his rise to power, contrasted with Michael’s own moral condemnation.

The Godfather is its own complete film, presenting a singular story of son supplanting father, but The Godfather Part II enhances the overall themes of power corrupting, the love of family driving us to do horrible things and adapting to a new society. Viewed together, they are a remarkable portrait of American life.

Director and writer Francis Ford Coppola, screenwriter Mario Puzo and cinematographer Gordon Willis create something with the Godfather films of utter brilliance, completely defining a genre. At a time when the old Hollywood system was giving way to the film auteur of the 1970s, The Godfather merged both old and new styles, creating the modern gangster film and defining how new story structure, with its violence and its individual mark, could be constructed in a studio system. It launched the careers of Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and James Caan and gave new birth to Marlon Brando. Almost overnight, The Godfather became a sensation, and it’s legacy was firmly cemented forever with The Godfather Part II.

There are so many different interpretations of the two films. It has probably been analyzed more than any other work of cinema. Some see it as a representation of how evil infects our souls and destroys us, the devil represented by the mob. Others note how similar to mythology the film is, Zeus represented by Vito and the son, a Hercules, the Corleones literally gods on Mount Olympus. Others note how Michael loses sight of what his father accomplished and becomes so obsessed with preserving the Corleone legacy that he destroys it, thereby linking how the next generation destroys the previous one, how the stability of the American family in the 1940s and 1950s is destroyed by the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. And still others look at the immigrant story, the failed promise of an American dream (represented by Vito running away from a bad homeland to a United States full of promise). The dream is a mirage because human emotions, greed and cruelty, keep others from succeeding (how often Michael is kept from doing the right thing by corrupt politicians and cops and local thugs), thereby leaving crime the only way to survive. There is no single interpretation for Coppola’s work because to limit the films in such a way would be a detriment to their success. They stand for so many things and appeal to so many people.

Ever since its release, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II have remained the most popular films in American life, a representation of almost every facet of our culture (love, family, patriotism, crime, politics, feminism, religion, sexuality, loyalty, betrayal, existentialism and racism), epic in scope, impossible ever to replicate. It is rare for films to achieve cultural significance and alter the way we view the world, but the Godfather films touched the heart of America. They continue to stand as a representation of our best and worst selves, our own American story.

Movie Essentials: Vertigo

Upon release, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was deemed a commercial and critical failure. It was not as dramatic as Rear Window (1954) nor as surrealist as Spellbound (1945). It took years before it achieved its status as a masterpiece, but is now considered Hitchcock’s greatest work and one of the best films ever made.

After suffering a severe case of vertigo which led to a policeman’s death, officer John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is approached by an old friend, Galvin Elster (Tom Helmore) who believes that his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak) is being possessed by the spirit of an old suicidal ancestor. He follows her, begins to talk to her and ends up falling in love with her. His vertigo though prevents him from saving her as she climbs to the top of a tall church and hurls herself off. The incident and its supernatural origins send Scottie into a tailspin. He ends up spending months, possibly a year in a sanitarium, a wreck of a human being until he meets Judy Barton, a woman who looks remarkably like Madeleine. We learn that Judy was actually posing as Madeleine for him, enacting a plan concocted by Galvin to murder his wife and have Scottie play the part of detective willing to testify about her suicidal tendencies. Still in a fit of hysteria, Scottie goes out with Judy and convinces her to transform herself into Madeleine for him. Judy, hopelessly in love but trapped in her lie, placates him. When Scottie finally figures out the depths of her betrayal and who she really is, he corners her back at the church and forces her to the murder scene, overcoming his own vertigo. But Judy, haunted by the memory of what she did, mistakes a mysterious figure (who turns out to be a nun) as the spirit of the true Madeleine come back to haunt her and falls out of the church to her death, leaving Scottie alone again.

It is a heartbreaking story, part mystery, part romance, part ghost story, part drama. It is amazing how fluid it goes from beat to beat, genre to genre. Jimmy Stewart, in perhaps his greatest role, is always able to keep the audience empathized with his character even as he delves into a madness that mirrors the story of Carlotta. And Kim Novak, with all of her changing personas, pulls the viewer into her charm and mystique and makes us yearn for her just as she makes Scottie obsessed.

The film is about obsession and desire. Scottie has never felt love like he does with Madeleine. It is her mystery, her attractiveness that draws him in. More than just a fling or compatibility like he has with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), it is her connection to spirituality and the otherworld that has Scottie hooked. He is tempted by divine powers, powers he can’t understand. And when that love is taken away from him, desire overwhelms him.

Without the ability to feel that love and with loss stinging in his heart, he wanders through life aimlessly until he meets Judy by pure chance, fate interfering with his life again as this is the same woman he had fallen in love with, only hidden in her true form. But rather than try to move on with his life, Scottie’s obsession takes control of him, driving him into trying to recapture his old love, his incompatibility to move on from the past and resist temptation clouding his senses. Judy, helplessly in love with Scottie, can only try to please him.

Love is not a joyous thing in the film, but something that blinds reason and logic. It traps Scottie and Judy. It drives them towards tragedy. Scottie’s love towards Madeleine turns to anger as he realizes how he’s been betrayed by Judy. Judy is hopeless to leave Scottie because of her love for him, leaving both characters hurtling towards each other in an inevitable confrontation.

Guilt is also an integral force in the story. It is guilt that drives Scottie to try and help Galvin after the cop dies on the rooftop in the first scene. It is guilt that haunts Scottie after he is unable to conquer his vertigo to save Madeleine. And it is guilt that draws Judy back to Scottie as she feels compelled to be with him after she hurt him.

And in the end it is Judy’s guilt for the murder of an innocent woman that ends her life, leaving Scottie alone and hopeless once again, love and fate torturing him for what we assume will be the rest of his life.

Vertigo is Hitchcock’s deepest film, speaking to the universal sorrow of loved ones lost and the pain that guilt entails. Shot in gorgeous technicolor and utilizing a deep color palette that highlights San Francisco, Vertigo still entrances viewers with its haunting portrayal of Scottie and his doomed quest.

Movie Essentials: Lawrence of Arabia

“They won’t come for Damascus,” Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) proclaims near the film’s climax. “They’ll come for me.” T. E. Lawrence’s exploits in the Arabian desert during World War 1 as the British fought the Turkish empire are now the stuff of mythos. Director David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is both epic and yet also touchingly intimate.

T. E. Lawrence is tasked with investigating the progress of the Arab rebellion against the Turkish Empire at the film’s opening. That rebellion however is in shambles, the result of an indigenous people fighting amongst themselves and against a much better supplied foe. For the next two years, he helps organize the different clans of the desert into a unifying force and win critical battles against the Turks. As his exploits continue, and as the war effort against Austria-Hungary and Germany continues to flounder, he is promoted to hero status in the British and American press, helping turn the morale of the war for the Allied powers. Lawrence eventually leads the Arab people into Damascus in the hopes of creating a true Arab nation for the Arabs. But the conniving ruling classes in France and England make sure that their stakes in the new region will be well-managed and the infighting between the various Arab factions (Sunni, Shiite, Kurds) prevents the dream of a true Arabian state from coming to fruition. Lawrence leaves the desert a broken man.

Lean filmed the nearly four hour epic on location in Jordan, Spain and Morocco over a period of more than a year. The film is one of the most spectacularly shot spectacles in history. The brilliant cinematography captures the vibrant colors and texture of the Middle East. The viewer can practically smell the desert breeze and feel the heat and the sand.

The scope of Lean’s vision and the re-enactments of climactic battles would alone make the film memorable, but where Lawrence of Arabia really surges is with the characters and their inner dilemmas played out on such a global scale.

Lawrence is an incredibly complex and dynamic character. Is he British, Arab or something else? With his fame, is he a god of the desert, a hero of war or just a confused man thrust onto the world’s stage? Everyone seems to have a different opinion of him. The British think he is crazy. The Arabs think he is a being of divine power, a gift from God. The press thinks of him as a hero. Prince Faisal (Omar Sharif), perhaps his one true friend after an initial distaste for each other, considers him a potential leader of a great cause and grows to love him, hints of homoeroticism latent throughout the film (there are no women in the movie at all). As the war takes its toll and Lawrence’s identity changes from British intelligence agent to war hero to Arab inspirational figure, Lawrence loses more and more sense of who he is. With the ultimate defeat of the cause he put so much blood and sweat and soul into, he is left to the conclusion that perhaps he is no one at all.

There are also so many parallels to current events in Lawrence of Arabia. One need only look at events in Syria, Iraq, Israel, the UK and the United States to see just how much things have not changed in nearly 100 years. The sectarian violence, the revolutions against oppressive regimes, the suspicion of the East against the West and the subsequent fascination of the West to colonize the East are all at play in the film. The events at the conclusion of the movie illustrate the state of the modern world, with rival Islamic factions unable to coexist and the Western powers dividing up land for their own benefit regardless of centuries old cultures that reject their beliefs. The reverberation of events continues to haunt us to this day.

The viewer cannot help but see a bit of themselves in Lawrence, a sense of wondering who we are and what our destiny really means. The film opens in Arabia with a mirage, the sun dimly exposing just something over the horizon. Is it real or just a figment of our imaginations? No one knows. The same can be said about ourselves. What is truth? Are we real or just mirages?

Movie Essentials: The Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game (1939) was a critical and box office disappointment upon its release despite the fact that it was the most expensive French production ever at the time. In fact, the French censors banned it on the grounds that it was “having an undesirable influence over the young.” It wasn’t until after World War II that the film was rediscovered and a more modern audience could see it for it was: a masterpiece.

Aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) has just completed a record setting flight, but when he lands, the only thing on his mind is his disappointment that Christine (Nora Gregor), the wife of aristocrat Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), is not there to greet him. Despite her marriage, he is in love with her. Robert himself in involved in an affair with Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély) though he is trying to get out of it. André gets an invitation to Robert’s home from his good friend, Octave (Jean Renoir), where there is a large hunting party gathering. However, Octave himself is in love with Christine. More and more characters come into play: aristocrats, maids, servicemen, each involved in an intricate love web that all comes exploding in on itself at this weekend gathering. At the end of the night, André is dead, shot by a jealous groundskeeper who thought he was the man sleeping with his wife, and Christine belongs to no one.

The film stands as a commentary of the upper social class of Europe at the time. The aristocracy looks down on their servants and thinks little of them, using them for their own games, while that same lower class flails in a crumbling society, the lure of an outbreak of war pending. The director, Jean Renoir, had remarked that he believed it was the film’s candor about the social lives of the economic classes that drew such heavy criticism, that audiences were not ready for the truth presented in his film. The truth of the narrative is that the rich ignored the qulams of the lesser people, so indulging themselves with their own frivolous romances, that they failed to see the rising seeds of conflict that erupted into another world war.

Octave, played by Renoir himself, often remarks during the film, “Everyone has his reasons.” There is no central antagonist in the film. Indeed, the viewer is able to relate to just about everyone. All the characters have motives and goals against which they must compete within the rules of their society. They are all trapped in the rules of the game, a game of social hierarchy where the poor stay poor, the rich become richer and desires and lusts are structured according to placement. The Rules of the Game may hold many parallels to modern times, maintaining its relevance.

What the film ultimately gives the audience is a wide tapestry of European social existence. There are moments of comedy and drama and action, the dialogue is witty and the multitude of characters are interesting and involving. Much like his father, Auguste Renoir, a leading impressionist painter, Jean Renoir utilizes his canvas and presents an intricate glimpse into a timeless story.

At the film’s conclusion, André lies dead, the result of mistaken identity. He is a victim of someone who tried to transcend social ranking and become something more. He sought a married woman, a woman of higher class and even flew across the ocean to prove himself to her, but it does not matter. He is a victim of the rules of the game, a game that was rigged in Europe at the time and, with its eerie parallels to modern times, may still be to this day.

Movie Essentials: Casablanca

There are some films that not only stand the test of time, but that should be saved for all-time. There should be a collection stowed in a time-proof box or sent into space for other species to view, a representation of the medium, films that give a glimpse of our world, displaying different types of characters, different themes, presenting the human condition in a way that feels more real than life itself does sometimes. These are movie essentials.

In looking at some of these essential films, it is important to remember that what is paramount to the essence of cinema is first and foremost: story. Without an interesting, involving, heartfelt story, all the effects and cinematography and acting amount to nothing. Or, to put it more in line with Rick Blaine, they don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.

Casablanca (1942) may indeed be the finest screenplay ever written. It is the work of a number of writers including Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch and potentially Casey Robinson off the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison. The characters, plotting, locations, resolutions and dialogue are all timeless treasures that have transcended the film itself into popular culture.

The film, directed by Michael Curtiz, produced by Hal B. Wallis and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid, has survived nearly eight decades based on its timeless story.

Rick Blaine is trapped in Casablanca, Morocco, the owner of a cafe in the midst of World War II. Everyone in the city is trying to get out, Casablanca being the last port to potential freedom away from the Axis powers, but the town is essentially a prison where no one can escape. Cynical and tough-minded, Rick’s world comes crashing down when the woman he thought he had lost forever, Ilsa Lund, walks into his gin joint and upsets the balance of his self-proclaimed exile. Faced with a choice of helping the fledgling freedom cause or wallowing into irreparable self-pity, Rick must confront his past and decide what to do with his future.

One of the greatest things about Casablanca is its ability to genre-morph. It contains elements of the dramatic, comedic, romantic, action-packed and musical genres. Its ability to balance all of these elements without falling apart is a tribute to the strength of its narrative which keeps the film chugging along. These different genres also give the film a more comprehensive feeling of completeness; we feel many different aspects of life throughout the course of one story.

The score, the song (As Time Goes By) and the cinematography, a high-contrast black and white palette that emphasizes bars seemingly on every character to represent the nature of their prison environment, all contribute to create the ambiance that the story serves. Supposed bit players such as Peter Lorre’s Ugarte and S. Z. Sakall’s Carl are given interesting character arcs and dynamics that make them memorable and further add to the emotional appeal of the movie. All of these elements (lighting, casting, sound) contribute to the story rather than distract from it.

At the heart of the characters of Casablanca, and specifically Rick, is a sense of mystery as to who they really are. Rick thinks he is one thing, a reclusive drunk who just wants to be left alone, but his heart tells him he is something else, a man dedicated to virtue and sentimentalism. Ilsa thinks she is one thing, the wife and inspiration of a freedom fighter, but her heart tells her she is a renegade in love with another man. Even Captain Renault believes he is one thing, a corrupt, woman-hoarding goer with the wind, and reveals himself to be a caring sympathizer.

It is this recognition of who we truly are and choosing to be that person despite the pains of that choice that makes the film feel more honest and dramatic than most films dare to recognize. At the finale, Rick chooses to be the freedom fighter that is true to himself at the expense of a potential life with his love. It is that moment of realization and action that has kept the film alive all these years, that recognition of true inner self, a universal theme that transcends time.

Of course, that is just one interpretation of the film. The film could also be interpreted as a story of unrelenting love against oppressive times, the necessity of personal sacrifice for the greater good, latent homosexual longings in times of crisis or the unending patriarchal power over feminine will.

One of the greatest things about cinema is the ability to interpret individually what films mean to us. The best films not only reveal themselves to us, they continue to do so every time we watch them, bringing us new interpretations that we had never experienced before and illuminating new aspects of the human condition. Casablanca continues to enlighten with each additional viewing. That is the mark of an essential film.

Horror Movie Classics: The Bride of Frankenstein

The original Frankenstein (1931) is a monster classic in its own right. It is iconic, generating some of the tropes that make monster movies what they are today. Yet for all of its old horror charm, it lacks the heart and the intricacies from great works of art to make it anything more than a monster film. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) continued its predecessor’s gothica, but added humor, emotion and heartache. Combined with the story behind its director, James Whale, the story takes on a whole new type of artistic brilliance, a representation of homosexuality and estrangement.

Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff in both Frankenstein and its sequel) is the most sympathetic of all of Universal’s monsters. He is not inherently evil like Dracula or insane like the Invisible Man. He can not change to a normal guy after the full moon like the Wolf Man or desires to exact vengeance on the world like the Mummy. He is a poor creature, childlike, hated because of his appearance and for what he is: an experiment gone wrong.

James Whale grew up a gay man in a world that did not accept him. Much like the monster, he never felt as if he truly belonged and was persecuted simply for being himself. Viewing Bride, the viewer can feel that personal connection that Whale has with the monster, that pained sense of ostracization. And rather than accentuate the innate hurt the monster feels, he focuses on the comedic elements that contradict the previous film.


Horror and comedy may feel like two separate sides of a coin, but they are closely linked. We laugh at terrifying things sometimes and recoil at certain humor. They each produce a strong emotional reaction out of us, a jump of fear and a knee slap of laughter not that different really.

Whale uses that dichotomy of emotion to illustrate the strangeness of his monster and of his own life. During the film, the monster confronts a woman after crawling out of a burning mill. The woman turns to the camera, screams and runs away. In a way, he is saying, life is both terrible and hilarious, an elaborate joke that makes us cry.

The very idea of a man (Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive) creating another man is laced with latent homosexual underpinnings. Frankenstein is attempting to create his own form of masculine perfection, something he can claim as his own, a direct affront to God and to society. The monster, then, yearns for companionship and love, but is met with a world of scorn. Both men, searching for completeness, have nowhere to go.


Frankenstein’s tutor, Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), is a flamboyant, maniacal man, similarly humorous amidst a world of death and decay. He seems to be in love not only with replicating Frankenstein’s work, but also in love with his student, an unrequited desire. This connection to another man ties him to Frankenstein’s dream to create a new being, something that can actually generate love in a world of torment.

And yet, the person they create, the mate of the monster, hates him just like all the others. The monster can find no peace. Pretorious can find no peace. Only Frankenstein, repentant of his ways, normal, with a woman, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), by his side, gets to live. The world is made for those like him, the film suggests. The outsiders are monsters meant to suffer.

The only man who truly shows any sympathy to the monster is the blind man (O. P. Heggie) who teaches him kindness and words like “friend.” It is a haunting scene, the lure of emotional connection snatched away because of how the world looks at you. It is probably something that James Whale dealt with quite often.

James Whale killed himself in May of 1957 at the age of 67. His story is excellently presented in Bill Condon’s film Gods and Monsters (1998) starring Ian McKellen.

While current filmmakers resort to violence and gore and jump scares to produce modern horror films, perhaps the simplest scares are the most lasting; that balance between comedy and horror, the real world creeping into the characters we watch, and the knowledge that we are all outsiders and can not find lasting peace.