Children frequently delight in the power of magic. They appreciate the wonder it engenders, and they often look on in wide-eyed awe at what it can produce. But, somewhere along the line, many of us lose that sense of amazement as we age, believing that such notions are little more than foolish, childish fantasies. What’s worse, due to difficulties in many of our lives, some of us may never discover the joys of this endearing aspect of life, denying us one of the tremendous pleasures of childhood. And, unfortunately, in either case, we often end up divorced from the skills and mindset that a genuine belief in magic affords us, separated from valuable tools that can help us achieve happiness and fulfillment in life. When this happens, we need something to help us discover or rediscover what we’ve lost or never found, the kind of fun-filled intervention offered by a specially gifted miracle worker in the long-awaited sequel to a Disney musical classic, “Mary Poppins Returns” (web site, trailer).
Times are tough in Depression Era London, and even those who were once relatively well off are experiencing the financial pinch of “the Great Slump.” So it is for the family of Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), a middle-aged aspiring artist and temporary bank employee who struggles to make ends meet for himself and his three children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). But monetary worries are the least of his troubles; he’s also wrestling with the grief of the recent loss of his wife, as well as the chaos of living in a home that’s gradually becoming run down. He gets some help from his housekeeper, Ellen (Julie Walters), and his social activist sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), but the ever-growing list of challenges weighs heavily on him.
If all that weren’t bad enough, though, an even bigger setback occurs when the bank holding the mortgage on Michael’s home announces that it’s about to foreclose on the property. The beleaguered Mr. Banks has less than a week to make good on his delinquent payments or risk losing the house. To cope with this, Michael and Jane appeal their case to Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), the chairman of the bank, who appears to sympathize with their plight but doesn’t offer any particularly special accommodations, despite the longstanding relationship that he and the institution have with the family (three generations of Bankses have been employed by the organization).
Needless to say, these challenges make for pretty glum conditions in the Banks household. As world-weary adults, Michael and Jane have lost much of the happy-go-lucky spunk that they relished when growing up. And the children, who, by their own initiative, have commendably stepped up to take on more responsibilities, are nevertheless missing out on many of the joys of youth that all kids should be allowed to experience. Something clearly needs to be done to turn things around, but, considering what the family is up against, it’s obvious that a miracle is what’s really needed.
Enter Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), the whimsical, wondrous nanny who helped raise Michael and Jane. She arrives out of the blue, apparently not having aged a day in 30 years, to help with the upbringing of a new generation of Banks children, as well as to help Michael and Jane recover some of the joy that they once had but have since lost. Together with an old friend, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a kindly lamplighter, her eccentric cousin, Topsy (Meryl Streep), and an assortment of colorful live and animated cohorts, Mary introduces Annabel, John and Georgie to an array of extraordinary experiences that provide them with fun times and a host of valuable and practical life lessons. At the same time, Mary helps her former charges rediscover what they had forgotten, easing their burdens and restoring their faith in the magic that makes life worth living.
While Mary has retained many of the charms she possessed from her previous go-round (as seen in this film’s predecessor, “Mary Poppins” (1964)), there are some new subtle differences in her character. For instance, given the hardships of the 1930s and the challenges the Banks family faces, Mary is more of a “realist” this time out, recognizing the seriousness of the circumstances and bringing a practical attitude along with her, one focused on solving problems yet never losing sight of the quaintness, eccentricity and creativity that helped to distinguish her personality, outlooks and methods. What’s more, Mary is also a bit “saucier” this time, a bearing more reflective of the times (and the sensibilities of contemporary movie audiences) and less unrealistically saccharine encrusted. The result is a Mary Poppins who’s readily recognizable but more in step with the times during which the story is set (and for the time that the film is being released).
What hasn’t changed, though, is Mary’s fondness for working her magic through song. In a series of skillfully orchestrated musical numbers involving singing, dancing and animation, Mary, Jack, the children and an assortment of kindreds including everyone from Topsy to a kindly balloon lady (Angela Lansbury) joyfully convey their messages and work their magic for the benefit of one another as well as those watching from the audience. (It’s good to see that some things don’t change.)
The messages that come through are valuable ones, too, especially for impressionable young minds and those who can use a fresh new perspective. In virtually every instance, Mary and company stress the magic attainable in life – provided we allow it. On a number of occasions during the film, Mary makes it plain that anything is possible as long as we believe in the outcome. To accomplish such ends, she encourages us to take such steps as adopting new outlooks, envisioning what we want, breaking through limitations that hold us back, and confidently and playfully facing our fears. It’s heartening to see a picture that encourages its viewers – especially young ones – to embrace these concepts. The messages may come dressed up in a pretty, colorful package, but the information they impart is undeniably important, lessons that will undoubtedly prove useful on our respective journeys (and the sooner we learn them, the more ingrained they’ll likely become as part of our mindset for life). Way to go, Mary!
In the interest of full disclosure, I was skeptical about this one and wasn’t particularly looking forward to seeing it. I must admit, however, that I enjoyed it much more than I was expecting, especially since remaking classics or creating sequels to them is very risky business (and something that often makes me cringe). This offering does justice to the original, thanks to its excellent production values and many fine performances. Its enjoyable soundtrack isn’t quite as memorable as its predecessor, but, unlike many contemporary musicals, it’s far from forgettable. Emily Blunt pays perfect homage to the legendary character and is worthy of whatever acclaim that comes her way, and kudos are definitely due its fine cast of supporting players. The film is, unfortunately, somewhat episodic, using the sometimes-thin narrative between musical numbers mostly as a bridge to link the songs to one another. Otherwise, though, this is a capably made and surprisingly delightful release.
Though critical acclaim for this film has been a little soft, the picture has nevertheless fared well in awards competitions. Both the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute have named “Mary Poppins Returns” as one of their top 10 films of 2018. In the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards, Blunt earned a nomination for best leading female, and, in the BAFTA Awards contest (the British equivalent of the Oscars), the picture has captured three nominations for original score, costume design and production design. In the recently announced Golden Globe Awards competition, the picture picked up four nominations, including best comedy picture, best comedy actress (Blunt), best comedy actor (Miranda) and best score, though it took home no statues. And, in the Critics Choice Awards program, the film earned nine nods, including best picture, actress, actress in a comedy, score, visual effects, production design and costume design, as well as two nominations for original song, though it came away empty handed.
Finding satisfaction in life can often be challenging enough in itself, but, without a belief in the power of magic, one of the forces than can help to bring it about, the process can be that much more problematic. Thus it’s in our best interest to keep sight of this force for good and cultivate it whenever we can. Considering the alternative, it’s really not too much to ask of ourselves; indeed, we truly have nothing to lose and everything to gain. In her own lovingly stern and ever-polite way, Mary Poppins reminds us of what it means to believe in magic (and, if we know what’s good for us, we had better listen to her).
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Leveling the Playing Field
Patently unfair circumstances ultimately hurt everyone. Allowing the perpetuation of double standards harms those who are innately disadvantaged, but the damage seldom stops there; at some point, those who seemingly benefit from those arrangements can ironically be undone by them, their advantages wiped out by a fate that they likely view with incredulity as some kind of weird, unfathomable joke. Which is why everyone is better off with a level playing field, one in which we each get an equal shot at available opportunities with no arbitrarily imposed constraints holding us back. However, bringing such conditions into existence may prove challenging and time-consuming, especially for those on the outside looking in. And that’s where the role of the fervent advocate comes into play, one whose story is detailed in the inspiring new biopic, “On the Basis of Sex” (web site, trailer).
Anyone seeking to build a career – of virtually any type – in 1950s America had to face a fundamental truth: For better or worse, it was indisputably a man’s world. That may have been a sweet deal for men, but it seriously frustrated women looking to earn college degrees and enter the professional work force. What’s more, these circumstances often had the force of law behind them; legally sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sex was a fact of life, one that reinforced a view that men were the breadwinners and women stayed home to raise children and run their households, an outlook widely considered “the natural order of things.” Needless to say, breaking out of this mold was a tall order for any woman who wanted more than a conventional lifestyle.
This was the world that Harvard University law student Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) faced as she began her pursuit of a legal career. She looked forward to the opportunity to prove her worth and live up to her potential. But, despite the impressive credentials that enabled her acceptance into this prestigious program, Ginsburg and her female colleagues routinely faced openly antagonistic discrimination toward them. This included chiding from Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), who outwardly challenged the women to justify why they deserved slots in law school that he sincerely believed rightly belonged to men. Such gender-based prejudice rankled Ginsburg to no end, so much so that it pushed her that much harder to excel.
But, in spite of her efforts to focus on her studies and career advancement, Ginsburg found herself having to take on a more traditional role when her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), a law student one year ahead of her, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Suddenly the young wife and mother found herself having to care for an ill husband, along with her toddler daughter, Jane (Lily Mitchell, Violet Mitchell), while attending to her coursework, as well as aiding Martin in completing his studies. It was quite a full plate, but a steadfast Ruth was determined to succeed.
Thankfully, Martin was cured of his illness, graduating on schedule with a job awaiting him as a tax attorney at a New York law firm. But, with Ruth still having a year of school remaining, to avoid being separated from her husband while finishing up, she completed her education at Columbia University, from which she graduated first in her class. However, even with such a formidable academic pedigree to her credit, Ginsburg faced more frustration when she sought to secure a position with any number of New York law firms. For all of her accomplishments, potential employers simply couldn’t bring themselves to hire a woman, including those that readily recognized her talents. Even Martin’s enthusiastic recommendations went ignored. The legally sanctioned sex-based discrimination that held back so many women did the same to Ginsburg, despite her abilities and accomplishments.
Given her lack of success in securing work with the New York firms, as a “fallback,” Ruth reluctantly took a position as a professor at the Rutgers University law school, teaching civil procedure with an emphasis on the discriminatory aspects of the legal code. She was less than enthusiastic about having to “settle” for this position. She would have preferred to serve as a full-time practicing attorney, as well as an advocate for equal protections for women under the law, a cause championed by one of her idols, pioneering lawyer Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates). Little did Ginsburg know, however, that this position would be the springboard to her greatest accomplishments.
After years of teaching at Rutgers, much of it spent with quiet regret that she was not living up to her aspirations, Ruth got the break she was waiting for. Martin came upon a case that he suggested she should take on, one that could change everything, both for her personally, as well as for the cause of eliminating legal prejudice on the basis of sex. It was an unusual case, one rooted in tax law (not one of her specialties) but one that also had gender-based discrimination written all over it.
In essence, the case involved an instance where a male plaintiff (Chris Mulkey) was denied a tax benefit that was otherwise readily available to women. The strategy involved here was to argue that discrimination based on sex fundamentally violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, hurting both men and women, regardless of gender. If she could convince the court to rule in her favor, it would set a precedent that could open the door to potentially knocking down all of the other laws on the books that legally sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sex.
While preparing for the case, Ginsburg began to see the profound impact of what a victory would mean. The implications would not only change the law, but would also potentially help to change the culture, something that could be a major benefit to an upcoming generation of women, like Ruth’s now-teenage daughter (Cailee Spaeny), a feisty idealist cut from the same cloth as her mother. Because of this, Ginsburg could see the tremendous weight she was placing on her own shoulders. But, if successful, she could also envision the tremendous influence a favorable ruling would have in reshaping the country and setting it on a new path for the future.
Working with longtime colleague Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as husband Martin, who would argue the tax aspects of the case, Ruth went to court to take up the cause. And, just to make things even more interesting, opposing her in court would be a team led by attorney Jim Bozarth (Jack Reynor) backed by one of her old foes, Dean Griswold (who had now become Solicitor General of the United States), and one of her former Harvard law professors (Stephen Root), who recognized though was reluctant to acknowledge her abilities. The showdown was thus set, with a lot riding on the outcome.
This film, a dramatized account of incidents described in the documentary “RBG” released earlier in 2018, shows what it means to passionately advocate for change but doing so in a well-reasoned manner, one that evokes results that ultimately make much possible through small, measured steps. What’s more, it demonstrates how it’s possible to fundamentally change the nature of something as sweeping as a nation’s culture by means that don’t call for browbeating others into submission. Thankfully, we have brave souls like Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the helm to help make such changes possible. And, given her success in the wake of these efforts, eventually becoming associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s obvious her impact has been considerable.
This somewhat formulaic but nevertheless inspiring biopic about the early days of Ginsburg’s career is one of those feel-good offerings that has natural audience appeal. With fine, underrated performances by Jones and Bates, the film capably walks viewers through the complexities of the litigious landscape without resorting to excessive legalese while simultaneously putting a human face on the central issues in question, both in the lives of the protagonist and those for whom she served as advocate. To be sure, the pacing sometimes gets bogged down, and the screenplay tends to unfold in a safe, tried-and-true, somewhat predictable manner. Nevertheless, the inspiration “On the Basis of Sex” affords and the ideas it champions are well worth the play they get here, something that should prove uplifting to those who seek fairness, equal opportunity and even-handedness in all of their endeavors. It’s particularly appropriate for impressionable young minds, such as those of an upcoming generation of women looking to make their mark on the world – and the culture at large.
But, then, that’s what heroic figures make possible when they take on their causes. They trap those who would hold others back by using their opponents’ own weapons against them, a clever strategy that frequently leaves them holding all the cards while their vanquished adversaries cower in utter defeat. They set an example not only for their followers to embrace, but that also fundamentally changes the attitudes of those who try to stifle them. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of those iconic figures who did just that, opening new doors – and new vistas – for both her immediate constituency as well as everyone else. She has spent decades showing us what it means to play fair – and the rewards that such noble conduct is ultimately capable of bestowing on us all.
A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.
Redefining the Nature of Family
What makes a family? Some would say it’s strictly a matter of blood relations. Others would contend that it’s based on emotional bonds, the kind that form through birth, adoption or matrimony. But others still might claim that such considerations are irrelevant, that being a family stems from other less common and less tangible but nevertheless significant connections, ties that keep everyone together for everyone’s benefit. These are questions raised and explored in the unusual new Japanese comedy-drama, “Shoplifters” (‟Manbiki kazokuˮ) (web site, trailer).
Making ends meet in modern-day Tokyo can be difficult, as the Shibata family would readily attest. Everyone has to contribute, but even those combined efforts barely keep the family off the streets. As the principal breadwinner, father Osamu (Lily Franky) provides as best he can by working as a day laborer on construction sites. Meanwhile, mother Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) tries to earn her keep by pressing clothes in a commercial laundry. Then there’s sister Aki (Maya Matsuoka), who contributes her share through the money she clears working at a “hostess club.” Together they share a meager residence with the family matriarch, Grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), and her adolescent grandson, Shota (Jyo Kairi).
But, even for all their efforts, the Shibatas merely scrape by, living in a ramshackle inner city home in a rundown neighborhood. So, to stay afloat, they supplement their respective incomes through a questionable and unconventional means – shoplifting.
As the leader of this petty crime ring, Osamu has the practice down to an art. Working with Shota, the crafty team routinely succeeds at clandestinely swiping much of what they want and need from a variety of unsuspecting shop owners. Nobuyo, meanwhile, has become an expert at rifling through the clothes that come into the laundry, skillfully finding – and taking – whatever items of value that unsuspecting customers may have inadvertently left in their pockets. Even Grandma Hatsue gets in on the game by running a grifting scam in which she effectively – and routinely – uses guilt to fleece a young married couple for cash. Everyone has an angle, it seems, but their combined efforts all play a part in helping to sustain the household.
The Shibatas’ “shoplifting” is elevated to an entirely new level, however, one cold evening as Osamu and Shota return from one of their latest orchestrated heists. While walking through the back alleys on their way home, they find a young girl, Yuri (Miya Sasaki), alone on the street. The shivering, malnourished child appears to have been abandoned, and she offers little information about her circumstances other than the fact that she comes from a home in which her parents spend a lot of time engaged in heated arguments. Unsure how to return Yuri to her family (and whether they even should), Osamu and Shota take her in.
This act of compassion is met with somewhat mixed feelings when the small-time crooks return home. Clearly everyone can see that the child is in need of help, but, at the same time, Yuri’s also quietly looked upon as yet another mouth to feed in an impoverished household where resources are already stretched thin. The family nevertheless agrees to take her in, at least temporarily, but, with little to go on regarding the whereabouts of Yuri’s parents, that arrangement soon becomes permanent. And, after a time, the Shibatas come to warmly welcome the newest member of the tribe, though Osamu and Nobuyo frequently look over their shoulders in apprehension, worried that, if found out, they might be accused of kidnapping.
In no time, Yuri settles in with her new family. But joining her adoptive relatives comes at a cost – literally. So, to help her earn her keep, before long, she’s taught how to participate in the Shibatas’ supplemental income program. She becomes a valued participant in the shoplifting scams organized by Osamu and Shota. And she proves to be a natural at it, quickly learning the ropes and becoming proficient in the art of successfully ripping off retailers. Yuri makes it look easy, all the while artfully maintaining the appearance of supreme innocence. She fits right in.
However, given how the family struggles to get by, one can’t help but wonder how long they’ll be able to keep getting away with their tricks without getting caught. Even they grow quietly concerned, especially since the stakes are now higher with Yuri in their midst, a secret that, if discovered, could land them in jail. It’s a threat that’s always with them. So, when one of their scams goes awry, it opens an enormous can of worms, not just to the caper of the moment, but also to a host of other secrets whose implications for the family’s future are staggering. What was thought to be a ring of petty thieves actually turns out to be something much more nefarious (at least in the eyes of the law). The Shibatas may see themselves as a family merely living an alternate type of existence, but authorities come to view them as something else entirely.
When faced with such trying circumstances, it takes some creativity to survive, and the Shibatas have become adept at devising alternative solutions. That’s because they’re willing to think outside of accepted conventions and push past limitations. They consider options that are far from typical, and they’re routinely rewarded for their creative thinking, receiving the inspiration they need and ultimately attaining the hoped-for results. And, as becomes apparent through the film, this applies to more than just how they meet their basic material requirements; it has applications in a wide range of areas, including some that clearly fulfill the family’s emotional needs.
Of course, if the Shibatas are so clever at drumming up these inventive solutions to these problems, one can’t help but wonder why they don’t just look for solutions that eliminate their daily hardships in the first place. That’s a legitimate question, but perhaps there are other, less obvious considerations involved here, such as the value that comes from learning particular life lessons. For example, even though shoplifting and grifting help the family cover their basic needs, such actions are generally viewed as unethical and immoral, not to mention illegal. Can poverty be used to justify criminality? Admittedly, it’s an expedient solution, but what of the risk and responsibility? What message does such activity send to the younger members of the family? Are there options available that would help the family escape its conditions that don’t rely on such dubious tactics? Indeed, maybe they need to get really creative with their problem-solving skills to get over their difficulties and move on to something altogether different, better and above board.
Despite these problematic circumstances, however, one area in which the Shibatas have succeeded is in building a loving and mutually supportive family. Such an undertaking can be difficult under conditions as daunting as what they face, but they know they have one another to count on, and that kind of bond can help them weather adversity surprisingly well. They know the true meaning of family, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
After what is a painfully slow first hour, “Shoplifters” manages to redeem itself in its second half, with heart-tugging moments and stunning revelations that evoke genuine emotions without becoming sentimental or manipulative. While the film’s first half contains subtle hints of what’s to come in its back end, the pacing of the opening act, unfortunately, tends toward tedium at times. As with many of his other pictures, director Hirokazu Kore-eda tells a story that occasionally feels like it wasn’t fully fleshed out at the time it was filmed, despite an intriguing premise and an array of ideas for insightful exploration. It’s truly regrettable that the picture lacks the consistency it needs to make it a better offering overall.
Despite these shortcomings, however, “Shoplifters” has been showered with praise at film festivals and in awards competitions over the past year. Early in 2018, the picture captured the Cannes Films Festival’s Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor. Later in the year, the film was named one of the National Board of Review’s top five foreign language offerings. And since then it has earned nominations in the foreign film categories of the Independent Spirit Awards and the BAFTA Awards. It received comparable nods in the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award competitions, but those nominations failed to translate into wins.
Those who face life from a different perspective than those in mainstream society frequently must contend with conditions and challenges that others don’t have to address. The need for support in those circumstances thus becomes crucial, yet, in many cases, it’s also often harder to come by. That’s where the meaning of fostering one’s own customized circle of kindreds comes into play, and the importance of succeeding at this can’t be emphasized enough, as one’s very survival may depend on it. But, in doing so, we must consider the consequences that accompany such efforts as we determine who we rightly get to call family.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2018-19, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.