Ho ho ho! As is traditional, Hollywood dropped off a load of holiday gifts over the pre-Christmas weekend, despite at least half of them looking significantly better when they were still wrapped.
In order of attendance …
MARY POPPINS RETURNS
This is going to sound insane, but all throughout Mary Poppins Returns, I kept thinking about Psycho – not the Hitchcock classic, but rather Gus Van Sant's “shot-for-shot” homage from 1998. There are, I'll admit, a spoonful of differences between Van Sant's critically maligned retro-thriller and director Rob Marshall's Disney musical that brings our heroine to 1930s London and the children of her former charge Michael Banks: The new film is a sequel, not a remake; it features original material instead of mere re-creations; no one gets killed in the shower, even if there is a memorable bit involving a bathtub. But the experience of Mary Poppins Returns is so thoroughly, intentionally reminiscent of its forebear that Marshall's movie is a bit off-putting even while you're enjoying it. Emily Blunt does a Julie Andrews. Lin-Manuel Miranda does a Dick Van Dyke. Every single musical number has a direct antecedent in 1964's multiple Oscar winner. It's all perfectly pleasant and sometimes really charming, yet I still felt distracted. Haven't we been here before? And given the film's obsessive fidelity to Poppins 1.0, was there any pressing need to go back?
That being said, I actually really like the experimental audacity of Van Sant's Psycho, and similarly admire Marshall, screenwriter David Magee, and their creative team for attempting to replicate (oftentimes successfully) both the original's particular screen magic and that magic as it would've felt when the film was first released. Excepting the anachronistic, ill-considered arrival of a bunch of BMX bikes and the action climax that finds Miranda scaling the exterior of Big Ben, very little here suggests the blockbuster-ized cynicism of “If they liked it 54 years ago, they'll love it now!” Instead, the prevailing attitude seems to be “If they liked it then, hopefully they'll like it still.” The hand-drawn animation looks straight out of Disney in the '60s; the portrayals – barring that of the intensely soulful and moving Ben Whishaw as the adult Michael – are winningly straightforward and free of subtext; Marshall's staging and old-school choreography are pure studio-system corn. (At the end of Meryl Streep's big number, everyone on-screen collapses in a fit of giggles, just like characters used to at least once in practically every musical comedy of yore.)
And while 130 minutes is a long sit for a family movie – albeit not quite as long as the first Poppins' 140 – there are loads of random pleasures to make the time fly by: the music-hall routine that lets Miranda deliver snappy dance moves and even snappier patter lyrics; Angela Lansbury showing up, and singing beautifully, as a balloon seller; Blunt reacting with voiceless, awestruck horror when one of the Banks siblings has the nerve to ask how much she weighs. While it's in some ways a disconcerting experience, I was mostly delighted by Mary Poppins Returns, and never more so than when Dick Van Dyke himself – unbelievably spry at age 93 – all but jumped on a desk and began hoofing like he had time-traveled to the set directly from 1964. Deus ex machina? Try deus Van Dyke-ina.
WELCOME TO MARWEN
Robert Zemeckis' fantasy drama Welcome to Marwen is being promoted in its trailers as “the most original movie of the year.” Given that it's largely based on a true story – one previously told in the 2010 documentary Marwencol – calling the film “original” is a dicey bit of advertising. But I suppose a case could be made for the adjective regardless, considering that I, for one, never expected to see any film simultaneously remind me of Inglourious Basterds, The Polar Express, The Accused, Team America: World Police, Ed Wood, and Threat Level Midnight, Michael Scott's über-tacky passion project from the seventh season of The Office.
Michael Scott himself, Steve Carell, plays the film's real-life protagonist Mark Hogancamp, who in 2000 was nearly beaten to death outside a bar in upstate New York, purportedly for admitting his fondness for wearing women's shoes. Hogancamp's five assailants knocked nearly all of the man's memories out of his head forever, and as a coping mechanism, the amateur artist built a scale rendition of a World War II-era Belgian village populated by dolls modeled after Mark's friends, acquaintances, and (in the form of Nazi soldiers) attackers. Today, Hogancamp is widely admired for his inadvertent installation-art project and the photos he's taken of it, and his is an astounding, life-affirming tale that's certainly deserving of a narrative feature by a lauded director and star. Too bad it had to be this one.
While the Uncanny Valley effects that turn Carell, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Merritt Weaver, and others into life-size Barbie and Ken dolls are initially amazing and continually eye-catching, their clichéd WWII exploits grow increasingly tiresome, and that's when you're not being assaulted and annoyed by Welcome to Marwen's blatant, mostly unexplored misogyny, obvious symbolism, and eye-rollingly – and I guess intentionally – terrible dialogue. (When a milkmaid is gunned down and Mark's plastic alter ego says “There's no use crying over spilled milk,” it's only a breath away from secret agent Michael Scarn growling “Cleanup on aisle five.”) Astonishingly, however, Zemeckis' present-day sequences are no more realistic than his period fantasies, with everyone but Mark granted one character trait at most, and with Mark's condition and general persona employed, unfortunately and unfairly, for easy sentiment and laughs rather than legitimate exploration. (The film glides rather too conveniently over its hero's fetishes; when Mark flirts with Mann's cartoonishly sweet neighbor and refers to a particular porn star as “my favorite actress,” it's like the De Niro of Taxi Driver taking Cybill Shepherd to the movies.) With composer Alan Silvestri providing yet another of his Zemeckis-approved twinkly, Gump-y scores and Carell giving an adorable-basket-case performance to match, this Marwen may be an incredible town, but I still couldn't wait to leave.
MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS
My screening of Mary Queen of Scots was preceded by a teaser for the forthcoming film continuation of Downton Abbey, and the instant its title was revealed, the patron sitting behind me quietly clapped her hands and whispered, “Yay!” Man, was she ever at the right movie, because director Josie Rourke's costume drama about the 16th Century rivalry between cousins Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I delivers what feels like a full season of corseted soap opera in a tidy two hours. My hunch is that Rourke's outing is also best enjoyed as soap opera. Because while the historical accuracy comes off as shaky and definitely revisionist, the juicy power dynamics and (sometimes literal) back-stabbing will be happily familiar to anyone who's ever enjoyed a guilt-free gorge of some PBS classic from the 1970s, or even a more recent binge of Game of Thrones … except here, the dragons all come with Y chromosomes.
A theatre director by trade, Rourke's vision appears to be a bit blurred during scenes of hectic action spectacle, which are suitably violent but not terribly coherent, and a few of the performances feel tailored more for the stage than the screen. (As an incensed Protestant preacher prone to shrieking denunciations of Mary in the town square, David Tennant incessantly pops his eyes from behind ZZ Top facial hair.) But she also gives her actors long takes in which to wage their characters' battles over Scottish and English dominion, and screenwriter Beau Willimon – who, as a longtime show-runner for House of Cards, knows a thing or two about political treachery – serves up enticingly hammy declarations, such as Mary's incensed denigration of her uncle: “I will not be a Henry VIII, dispensing with husbands as he did wives.” (Played by Jack Lowden as a charismatic, bisexual, deeply untrustworthy weasel, Henry Darnley is one husband who deserves to be dispensed with.) While the period detail, particularly the work of wardrobe designer Alexandra Byrne, is uniformly stunning, there are moments here in which you too fully feel the weight of the present on this saga of the past. Mary's brazen independence and empathetic love for outsiders are showcased in ways that feel distractingly “now,” and when a frenzied mob chants “Death to the whore!”, it's almost too obviously a 16th Century variant on “Lock her up!”
But Mary Queen of Scots is enjoyable even when it's eyebrow-raising, and its leads are beautifully cast. Saoirse Ronan brings considerable strength, tenacity, and individuality to her take on Mary – a force to be reckoned with even when her tears suggest those of a young woman who knows she's fighting a losing war against a patriarchal society. And although her voice lacks the authority you generally associate with Elizabeth I – especially with the role having been previously played by Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Glenda Jackson – Margot Robbie delivers a risky, ultimately rewarding turn suggesting a cracked porcelain doll that gradually heals itself through sheer force of will. “Wise men servicing the whims of women,” says one of the film's many turncoat male advisers. “How did it come to this?” I don't know. As an entertained audience member, though, I'm grateful it did.
At one early point in the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Second Act, Leah Remini, playing the star's wisecracking best friend, leans over a kitchen counter during a conversation, casually unbuttons the top of her jeans, and instinctively sighs with relief. No moment at my screening elicited a warmer, more surprised, more relatable laugh, and if you choose to see director Peter Segal's comedy, I implore you to fully enjoy Remini's no-doubt unscripted bit, because it's as close to recognizable, real-world experience and behavior as this relentlessly synthetic big-screen sitcom ever gets.
Remember Mike Nichols' 1988 Working Girl, in which Melanie Griffith showed all those big-game hunters on Wall Street just what could be accomplished by an under-educated gal with a little moxie and a knack for deception? Second Act screenwriters Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas clearly do, and during their film's first half, Lopez basically follows Griffith's trajectory as she goes from being passed over for a chain-store promotion to running the entire show as a high-paid consultant for an upscale cosmetics company. (A phony Facebook account is responsible for her getting the gig, offering reason number 57,743 why that social-media outlet is perhaps not to be 100-percent trusted.) Barring the fact that Griffith was 30 when she made Working Girl and Lopez is just a few months shy of 50, casting the latter as a feisty upstart from the streets is just a shade disingenuous – or rather, dis-ingénue-ous. But Lopez, of course, looks great and has magnetism to spare. And even though the movie's First Act doesn't boast a single believable moment that doesn't involve Leah Remini's pants, it's moderately easy to enjoy the blithe, good-humored banter and amusing stereotypes played by Vanessa Hudgens, Treat Williams, Milo Ventimiglia, Annaleigh Ashford, and long-absent Kid in the Hall Dave Foley. It's crap, but totally bearable crap.
Yet with the arrival of a mid-film plot twist so ludicrous that its inclusion might've even given pause to Tyler Perry, Segal's aspirational fable squanders all of its initial goodwill, trading its bitchy bon mots for maudlin sentiment and burying Lopez in an avalanche of ridiculous coincidences, wildly improbable reactions to already improbable plotting, and more tears than you'll find in a season's worth of This Is Us. Second Act starts out vapid yet kind of fun and winds up vapid and no fun at all, and by its final minutes, even Remini's blue-collar bravado is of no use. It's impossible, after all, to be truly down-to-earth in a film when the filmmakers' heads appear to be stuck in the clouds.
Faced with either sitting through a Transformers prequel or taking my own life in order to avoid it, I reluctantly chose the former option, and summoned my reserves of stamina and patience to endure director Travis Knight's Bumblebee. Against all expectation, though, I think I made the right decision. Its presentation modeled on that of last year's Monster Trucks, albeit with more extraneous bombast and a better soundtrack, this sixth film in the sadly unkillable franchise opens with loud, meaningless turmoil on the planet Cybertron and wraps up with even louder, more meaningless destruction here on Earth. But in between those insufferable bookends, the movie is actually an occasionally charming fish-out-of-water comedy, and one with an absolutely first-rate performance by Hailee Steinfeld, who's forced to weep over a sentient Volkswagen Beetle and still emerges as the sanest person in sight.
The role probably wasn't much of a stretch, considering that after starring in 2016's The Edge of Seventeen, she's had practice playing a depressed-outsider teen whose dad died of a heart attack and who winds up with an endearing nerd of color as her platonic beau. Steinfeld, though, plays her almost litigiously familiar role with freshness, verve, and ace timing, and while the movie's 1987 setting is clumsily acknowledged in visual references to ALF and Tab cola and Mr. T cereal, it also means hearing a lot of outstanding tunes. [While the Smiths get the most significant airplay amongst a lineup that includes Duran Duran, Steve Winwood, and Tears for Fears, there's also excellent incorporation of Simple Minds' “Don't You (Forget About Me),” as well as a great nod to Judd Nelson's defiantly raised fist.] I couldn't have cared less about how or why Bumblebee wound up on Earth and what he/it did after landing. Yet with Pamela Adlon supplying dry wit as Steinfeld's mom, John Cena wringing humor out of unfunny lines, and Knight treating us to a speedily paced franchise entry that performs the miraculous feat of clocking in at under two hours (Michael Bay, you're not missed in the slightest), Bumblebee, for what it is, is more than serviceable. It's not worth three paragraphs, yet if you're feeling generous, it might be worth a look.
Metallic orange is a color that manages to look good on absolutely no one. So it was with a heavy heart, and an unsuccessful suppression of giggles, that I watched Jason Momoa pose through his transformation from Arthur Curry – a shirtless, heavily tattooed biker dude with blond highlights and black jeans – to an upstanding, if reluctant, costumed crime-fighter in director James Wan's Aquaman. Yet while I grimaced through the purportedly emotional moment of superhero creation, and also through the inevitable final seconds that culminated in the climactic “I … am … Aquaman!” declaration and tableau, I certainly can't say I was unprepared for disappointment, because the whole movie appears designed to set off alternating waves of frustration and incredulous laughter. Wan's origin fable runs just under two-and-a-half hours, and in that time, it seems to give audiences of all types a little something to hate.
Granted, there's also a bit to like, starting with Momoa himself. Although he's not much of an actor, Momoa's buff physique is enjoyably intimidating and his long hair ideal for underwater undulating, and the guy is fun in an early scene of drunken camaraderie with Arthur's dad (Temuera Morrison), taking the expression “drinks like a fish” to delightfully literal levels. I also got a kick out of the first minutes spent with Nicole Kidman as Arthur's mom, who vaguely resembled Daryl Hannah in Splash and appeared ready to sing “Part of Your World” at a moment's notice. And the brief sojourn to Sicily was nice, even if it did end with a masked bad guy laying waste to the island and Amber Heard's Atlantean warrior Mera using her powers to destroy the most adorable little wine shop you've ever seen. (A humble request to all makers of effects-heavy blockbusters: Annihilate Manhattan and Chicago and Tokyo all you want, but please leave poor Sicily alone.) But where oh where to begin with the Aquaman elements I loathed? With the remedial Shakespeare-for-Dummies plot that finds Arthur forced to claim his rightful title as King of Atlantis? With the desperately underwhelming Patrick Wilson as Arthur's half-brother, who hits a new low as an actor when forced to shout “Call me ... Ocean Master!!!”? With Heard's unvarying expression of pouty, open-mouthed petulance? With the staggeringly superfluous presence of the malevolent Black Mamba (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who eats up at least 20 minutes of screen time just so he can presumably waste even more in Aquaman II: Something Smells Fishy?
How about with the earnestly portentous dialogue – “Sometimes you have to do what's right even if your heart aches against it” – that begs for punchline retorts that never come? Or with the busy, phony underwater visuals that suggest Avatar by way of Finding Nemo? Perhaps with the heavy-metal guitar-lick anthem that accompanies Arthur's ass-kickery just as it does Wonder Woman's, even though, in this film, women only exist to escape disastrous planned marriages? (Wonder Woman would slap this movie right in the face.) Or maybe with Arthur and Mera stranding themselves in the Sahara desert and our never being shown how they get out of it? Or their excruciating rom-com bickering that would lead any half-aware third-grader to shout, “Get a room already!”? Or Wilson costumed as an Oscar statuette (with a cape) that this movie will never win? Aquaman, to its sort-of credit, is too jaw-droppingly silly to be boring. It's also, however, too stupid to be satisfying, and I knew that Wan and his trio of co-scribes had no idea what they were doing when the movie finally dropped an enticing, politically and thematically resonant plot point into the mix – war-minded Atlanteans covering U.S. coastlines with the debris of decades worth of oceanic pollution – and promptly dropped the matter entirely. Aquaman himself may be half marine life, but his movie is totally chicken.