Nannies. Films reviewed: Mary Poppins Returns, Roma

Posted in 1930s, 1970s, Family, Kids, Mexico, Musical, Protest, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 28, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s holiday season, between Christmas and New Year, a good time to catch up on all those movies you’ve been meaning to see. This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a period drama, about nannies. There’s an ageless nanny in London with a magical touch, and a young nanny in Mexico City with a touch of sadness.

Mary Poppins Returns

Dir: Rob Marshall

It’s the 1930s in London, the time of The Great Slump. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a recently widowed father of three adorable kids – Anabel, John, and Georgie. They’ve lived in the house for generations, right beside an eccentric Admiral who fires cannons off his roof. Michael wants to be an artist, but works as a bank clerk to make ends meet. The kids struggle to act like grown-ups now that their mother is gone. And his sister Jane is doing her part as a social activist and union organizer. But an unexpected visit by two lawyers from the bank he works for throws the family into disarray. Turns out Michael defaulted on a loan and has until midnight Friday to pay it back or the entire family will be evicted from their own home.

What to do? Who can they turn to for help? Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), of course!

Michael and Jane have almost forgotten that she saved the two of them when they were kids, and here she is back again, aged not a day. There is something magical about her, but only if you allow the impossible to happen.  The kids are much too mature to fall for her tricks… or are they? Soon they’re swimming in the ocean via their bathtub, and travelling to a music hall in an animated world inside a chipped bowl. They visit Topsy (Meryl Streep) a flibbertigibbetty repair woman who lives upside down, to fix the bowl.  They race through London piled up on a bicycle driven by Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda) who lights the city’s gas lamps. And they buy magic balloons from an old woman (Angela Landsbury) in the park. But can magic save their home before the bank’s evil Mr Wilkins (Colin Firth) takes it all away?

Mary Poppins Returns is exactly what the title promises: a continuation of the original story, one generation later. Jack was the chimney sweep’s son in the original, now he’s a lamplighter who narrates the story in song and dance. Michael and Jane are grownup versions of the original kids. The costumes – in bright yellows and fuscias with white boater hats – are pure Disney.The music, songs and dances, even the combination of flat cel animation with real people is just like it used to be. The score, the art direction, everything was a spot- on recreation of the original. The only differences are this Mary Poppins is decidedly sexier than the original, (Emily Blunt is amazing) and the cast isn’t lily white anymore. Lin Manuel Miranda is nicely endearing as Jack, though never having seen the hit broadway musical Hamilton I didn’t quite get the camera’s adulation of him.

I didn’t grow up with Mary Poppins, so I hold no deep sentimental attachment, but even so it scored high on my nostalgia meter, tugged at my heartstrings and made me feel warm inside. This is a wonderful G-rated musical and a genuine kids’ movie that also appeals to grown ups, a rarity these days.

Roma

Wri/Dir: Alfonso Cuaron

It’s 1970 in Mexico City. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) lives in a beautiful house with a grand staircase, and walls lined with bookshelves. There’s a narrow tiled passageway that serves as a garage, where a big dog runs around. And four cute kids — Toño, Paco, Pepe and Sofi — who happily play spaceman games. Cleo lives there but it’s not her house. The kids pet their dog while Cleo shovels the poop. She’s the nanny and also the maid, the one who gets blamed when there’s trouble. And there’s lots of trouble these days, with Señora Sofía (Marina de Tavira) the mom, trying to run the house with Papa on a long business trip to Quebec. She has help from the grandmother, Señora Teresa, but it’s a world without men, at least until Papa comes back.

Cleo is from a village and not yet used to city life. She spends her free time with the cook and her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). Fermin is a Kendo fanatic – martial arts saved my life, he says – prone to bouts of kicking and punching the air in the nude following sex. But when Cleo tells him she’s pregnant with his child, he disappears without a trace. What will happen to her baby? Who will take care of the kids? And will the family’s father ever come home?

Roma is a slice-of-life look at Mexico City in the tumultuous early 70s. It follows Cleo, a poor indigenous girl who speaks Spanish as a second language, and Sofía’s upper middle class family, as they try to understand one another, even while they both face family crises. It’s a slow-moving drama with normal, mundane family problems alternating with episodes of violence, terror and natural disaster. Cleo is viewing gurgling babies in the maternity ward just as an earthquake hits. She travels with the family to a hacienda where family dog heads are mounted on a wall like hunting trophies and forest fires break out. A simple trip to a downtown furniture store coincides with a government attack on student protesters.

Watching Roma is an immersive experience, filled with sound and unexplained images appearing on the screen. It’s shot in exquisite black and white – Cuaron is the cinematographer, as well as writer and director. Long, low shots almost always from far away: looking longingly down long corridors, at figures in a field before a spacious mountain range, or watching Cleo and Fermin from behind as they watch a movie on a screen even further away.

This is a lovely rich movie but one that intentionally keeps the audience from getting too close to any of the characters. We’re observers, but the action is far away, through a window or behind a closed door. No close ups, reaction shots, or gushing movie score, even with Cleo. But the cumulative effect – the sounds, music, images characters and historical events based on Cuaron’s own childhood – gives it a powerful impact.

See it in a movie theatre while you still can.

Mary Poppins Returns is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. And you can see Roma on Netflix or at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Movies within Movies. Films reviewed: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, The Wagner Files, Saving Mr Banks

Posted in 1960s, Biopic, Cultural Mining, documentary, Germany, Hollywood, Movies, Music, Musical, Politics, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

There are movies… and then there are movies within movies. This week I’m looking at some juicy brain candy, films that cross or blur the barriers between movies and real life. There’s a documentary with a Marxist lecturer who steps into the movies he talks about; a dramatized documentary that answers Bugs Bunny’s question What’s Opera, Doc?, and a drama set in Disneyland… about trying to make a movie.

perverts_01The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

Dir: Sophie Fiennes

What does the shark in the movie Jaws have to do with totalitarianism*? Well, a lot, if you listen to Slavoj Zizek.

If you haven’t seen him before, Slavoj Zizek is a real hoot. He’s this huge bombastic, bearded Slovenian who likes to talk – a lot.

A Marxist, he approaches ideology in unusual ways: pop culture and totalitarianism; Lacanian philosophy and The Big Other; social class and sexuality. A typical topic: how come Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was a national anthem for everyone from the extreme right to the extreme left? From Nazis to Peruvian Maoists? He seems to make sense — even when it’s complete  nonsense.

You might think – how can I listen to this guy lecture for two hours straight? The way the movie works is he shows a clip from a film – say Reifenstahl’s Triumph of Will – and the next scene has him, in black and white, dressed in period uniform.  He talks about a movie, and then he’s in the movie he’s talking about.

If you have an itch for some complex political chatter about pop-culture, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is the perfect place to find it.

(*In case you’re wondering about the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws… Zizek says it’s the Big Other, a way of reducing all of society’s fears and anxiety into a single entity. Fascism uses it to galvanize the population against a single feared “enemy”.)

Moving from the broad to the specific, here’s a new, experimental documentary about Wagner, called:

Die Akte Wagner_2©FalcoSeligerThe Wagner Files

Dir: Ralf Pleger

Wagner! He’s the 19thcentury German composer best known for his symphonies and operas. You’ve heard the expression “It’s not over till the fat lady sings”? They’re talking about the valkyrie Brünnhilde from Wagner’s ring cycle.

But who was Wagner? Not what you might think. This doc digs up the skeletons in Wagner’s closet. He was born in Leipzig and became a composer famous across Europe. But it turns out his trips to Paris, Venice, Munich were partly so he could outrun his creditors! He was deeply in debt. Then there’s his friend Hans von Bulow, an aristocrat and musician. Wagner was sleeping with von Bulow’s wife, Cosima, a Die Akte Wagner_5©FalcoSeligerraven-haired beauty who was also Franz Liszt’s granddaughter. She gave birth to Wagner’s kids while still married to von Bulow. Scandal! Sounds almost like a soap opera.

Then Wagner befriended King Ludwig of Bavaria – a crazy gay king who built a castle inspired by a Wagner opera. They had a passionate – though non-sexual – affair, and he became Wagner and Cosima’s patron, showering them with money and paying for his four-part opera and the Bayreuth festival in Bavaria devoted to his work.

Die Akte Wagner_Simone Young©FalcoSeligerThen there’s his fetishes. Wagner covered himself with feminine things –rose-coloured silk and velvets. They found his dead body clothed in pink robes.

Wagner and Cosima also had a dark side. He wrote a virulent tract against Jewish musicians and composers, saying they were members of an “inferior race” ruining German culture. And later (after Wagner died) the widow Cosima became closely tied to Hitler and the Nazi party, a tarnish still associated with Wagner’s work.

The movie uses both experts — conductors, historians, writers – and actors who portray Cosima and Richard… but in 20thcentury settings: Cosima posing dramatically; Richard rolling around in his pink feather boas. Half drama, half doc, German dialogue, English narrator. This is a strange but endlessly fascinating movie.

999622_578413545546254_1393361059_nSaving Mr Banks

Dir: John Lee Hancock

Mrs Travers (Emma Thompson) is an uptight, posh writer in her 60’s living in London, sipping tea and reading Gurdjieff.

She wrote Mary Poppins and Disney has been trying to buy the rights to it for decades. Finally, in 1961, she agrees to fly to LA to meet Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks).

She is not impressed by America. She says it smells like chlorine and sweat. And she’s creeped-out when she finds her hotel room filled with stuffed, giant Mickey Mice. At the studio she objects to 1392799_571559062898369_585661440_neverything the writer and songwriters (the Sherman brothers, played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak)  show her. Who are these penguins? She said no cartoons! Why is Mr Banks (the father) portrayed as mean? And the mother as uncaring? 

But then her childhood is gradually revealed in a series of flashbacks. She’s actually not English at all. She grew up in the Australian outback. Her mom was depressed. Her dad (Colin Farrell) was an alcoholic bank manager who hated his job. He told her life is just an illusion. And then there’s the inspiration for Mary Poppins.

1471835_584864851567790_1428997927_nCan Walt discover what’s holding her back from making a movie? This is a cute, heavily nostalgic and somewhat moving biopic, about turning a book into a movie script. The songs are great and lots of fun. Emma Thompson is terrific as the hard-to-like Mrs Travers who gradually opens up. Totally believable. Tom Hanks role is less rounded, more superficial. Why? Think about it: a Walt Disney movie about their founder shot on the Disney backlot? It’s like a Vatican-made drama about the Pope. So the Disney scenes are restricted, but the Travers scenes allowed to blossom.

The Wagner Files — at the Carlton — The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology — at TIFF — and Saving Mr Banks all open today in Toronto. Check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

 

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