-Reviews of Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, Vice, Mary Queen of Scots, and Ben is Back
Director: James Wan (The Conjuring 1+2, Insidious 1+2, Saw, Furious 7, Dead Silence)
Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen, and Nicole Kidman
with: Willem Dafoe, Dolph Lundgren, Temuera Morrison, Randall Park, and Julie Andrews
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%
While the fate of the DC Comics Universe remains uncertain following the disappointment of films such as Justice League, there is hope for optimism with these smaller stories about the individual heroes. Wonder Woman, despite a flawed ending and some dated action, ended up being a pretty good entry, and James Wan provides a steady sense of direction in this movie. While it may be a bit of a mess, I had a really good time with Aquaman and recommend it despite its faults.
The plot is pretty much a hodge-podge of other superhero stories, a mixture of the evil militant leader trying to unite the various tribes and take over the world with an Arthurian story about finding and obtaining a sword (trident) of legend to help in the struggle. Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is a mixture of human and Atlantian, the result of a forbidden love affair between his lighthouse keeper father (Temuera Morrison) and the Atlantis Queen (Nicole Kidman). When the Queen leaves to protect her son and rejoin society, she is cast out, and has not been seen since. She did, however, have a son from her arranged marriage, Orm (Patrick Wilson), who now aspires to be King of Atlantis, uniting the various tribes and waging war on the surface world for polluting their waters.
He has some support, but drums up additional panic to get other leaders to share his vision by paying Black Mantis (Yahya Abdul-Mateen), a pirate, to attack Atlantis, making it seem like the humans are as ready for war as he is. Arthur overplays his hand after a visit from princess Mera (Amber Heard), and when he’s not ready to take on Orm just yet, they instead go searching for the long lost trident meant to unite the tribes and be wielded only by the true king.
As I said, it’s a mixture of many plots combined in one. There’s a lot of exposition and world-building about Atlantis and its people, but there’s also a road romance where Arthur and Mera spend the entire second act searching for this weapon. Not all of the conflict really makes sense, and it suffers from similar issues that Black Panther did, where our characters fight to death in a feudal system of government even though they have amazing technology and societal achievements. There’s two villains, neither of which are interesting, and Jason Momoa isn’t even really performing or acting. He has no chemistry with Amber Heard.
I had a lot of fun though. The visuals are fabulous, with people riding on top of sharks, and the cities being engulfed in amazing lights. An octopus plays the drums and the final conflict has more fish exploding than any movie in history. And occasionally, Wan’s skill as a director shines through, with some really cool sweeping shots of action and interesting (sometimes scary) creature design. I would happily say this is my favorite of the DCEU so far.
MARY POPPINS RETURNS
Director: Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, Nine, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides)
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, and Colin Firth
with: Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Meryl Streep, and Julie Walters
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 77%
It’s a big step to make a sequel to such a beloved classic film, and that will come with all of the additional scrutiny attached. The pressing question I had during the run-time of this movie was: who is this movie for? It’s not really the type of modern film that young children are interested in, but it’s clearly a family-style movie designed more around children than it is for nostalgic adults who grew up on Mary Poppins. So, perhaps unfairly, I keep looking back on this film as being pretty outdated, with nothing really that special grabbing my attention.
The plot follows a few days where Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to the Banks children, this time as adults (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer). They’re in danger of losing the classic house to a loathsome banker (Colin Firth), and Mary Poppins begins spending time with Michael Banks’ children.
Outside of some impressive work by Emily Blunt in terms of having a good screen presence, essentially every other performance in this film is terrible. Ben Whishaw is miscast, and he’s pretty off-putting as the father, while Lin-Manuel Miranda is clearly not a film actor. His accent is poor, and his overall character in the film is really grating. Then, the studio decided not to have him work on the music. Isn’t the whole point of bringing him onto a project so that he can work on the musical aspects? Instead, he’s just a below average male counterpart to Mary Poppins.
I’ll just settle on the fact that I’m not the target market for a movie like this. I can’t really find anything objectively unreasonable about it, but I can’t say the visuals were great or that any of the songs were memorable. It was cool that Emily Blunt is able to successfully play Mary Poppins after the original was so ground-breaking, but this is a cheap modern imitation.
Director: Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings)
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg, John Cena, Pamela Adlon, and Stephen Schneider
with: Dylan O’Brien, Peter Cullen, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, and John Ortiz
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
There may not be much gravitas to saying that this new entry is the best of the Transformers series, but at the same time, we have to be careful to not overrate it because it finally reaches some level of confidence. I give a positive score for this movie with the disclaimer that it has become a little overrated, and really there isn’t anything here that E.T. didn’t give us 30 years ago.
We get to essentially see the slate wiped, with a complete new set up to the Autobot/Decepticon conflict. B-127, an autobot, heads to Earth in an attempt to set up a new base, but is ambushed, his memory wiped. As he goes into a long sleep as a VW Beetle, the Decepticons keep an eye out for his re-emergence. Years later, he is discovered, now unable to speak and with no memory, by Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), and they form a friendship now threatened by the Decepticons’ arrival.
It hits pretty normal story beats, but features a nice central performance from Steinfeld, who is as good in this as in her other successful roles like The Edge of Seventeen or True Grit. We actually feel for her bonding to B-127, who she nicknames Bumblebee, and she uses this new friendship to help her overcome family tragedy that has left her more introverted and shaken than she used to be. As she learns to be comfortable with herself again, the newfound confidence helps her propel the plot forward, defying her parents and working against the US government in order to protect Bumblebee from the incoming Decepticon threat. The action, meanwhile, is about what you’d expect. It was never thrilling, but it never reached eyesore level. Throw in John Cena’s presence and you have a passable, fun little action film to close out the year.
Director: Adam McKay (Anchorman 1+2, The Other Guys, The Big Short, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers)
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, and Jesse Plemons
with: Tyler Perry, Lily Rabe, and Alison Pill
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 65%
Met with some of the most mixed reception of the year, Vice is Adam McKay’s new, manic look at a political sequence of events, using editing tactics, inside jokes, and committed performances to tell a story about power and government, much in the same way he did in The Big Short. While Vice is less kitschy, and therefore better, I cannot say that I don’t at least understand the criticism of it. It’s an unapologetically liberal film, and McKay tells his story about the dangers of executive power and the failure of the Bush/Cheney administration without pulling any punches. He makes Cheney as human as possible, but he also shows him as a man without much of a conscience or soul.
The movie tells the backstory of Dick (Christian Bale) and Lynne (Amy Adams) Cheney, as Dick got kickstarted into politics working under Donald Rumsfeld, and then splices scenes of the changing guard of the Republican party through the 70s up to the 90s, and then eventually deals with Dick’s tenure as Vice President to George W Bush (Sam Rockwell). Famous actors appear in and out of the film as various government personnel.
The Bale performance is as advertised. That’s about the highest compliment I can give it. He’s one of the best actors in the world, transformed into this person physically with weight and mannerisms, while also capturing the essence of his grumbling calculus. He’s bolstered by a terrific Adams as Lynne, who works really hard to be the anchor to Bale’s bombastic and scene-stealing performance as Dick. There’s nothing I can write here other than just total admiration toward what Bale does as Dick Cheney, and just continue to admire how seriously he takes his roles. This may be his best performance ever, and that means competing against American Psycho, The Dark Knight, American Hustle, The Fighter, The Big Short, The Prestige, The Machinist, Rescue Dawn, and 3:10 to Yuma, not to mention a successful career as a child actor as well. This may not have the widespread acclaim of his work in The Fighter, but it will be hard to associate Dick Cheney outside of this movie performance now, which is something I don’t necessarily feel about the various George Bush imitations we’ve gotten through the years.
The editing style, kinetic energy, oddball comedy, and overall destructive message which completely tears down the entire thinktank of Fox News, low taxes and laissez faire economics, unitary executive theory, and the influence of big oil and the military industrial complex on our 21st century political sphere. It doesn’t try to be emotionally powerful or capture every perfect historical moment out of a desire to woo Academy voters. Instead, this movie is angry, and it uses ugliness and violent images to jolt the audience out of the traditional feel of a biographical drama. I loved this movie, and I loved its boldness and sincere inspiration. I also love Christian Bale, and what he does here to give one of the best performances of the whole year.
MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS
Director: Josie Rourke (X)
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, and David Tennant
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 61%
Historical inaccuracies aside, the biggest problem with Mary Queen of Scots is that it throws you into a complicated political sphere in the 1500s without any hesitation or background about who the various players are, where they live, and who they govern over. So, regardless of making characters gay without historical confirmation or other decisions that are made for cinematic purposes, the movie just was really hard to follow at the outset, and it ended up really spoiling most of the film for me because I felt like I was constantly playing catch-up.
The shell of the plot is that after the death of her French husband, Catholic widower Mary (Saoirse Ronan) comes back to Scotland to reclaim her leadership position as the rightful heir. At the same time, she has a solid claim to the English throne as well, currently held by the perpetually unmarried Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). While discord grows in Scotland due to the Catholic presence of the new Queen even though Protestant forces currently lead the country, civil war brews as Mary looks to ascend upward.
The costumes and period detail are both fabulous, and I can see why Focus Features is pushing this into the Oscar conversation. Outside of the spectacle of it, though, I’m not sure that the performances are that great or deserving of any awards praise. It’s also really tough to gauge the acting when the person’s motivations of who they are speaking to are constantly unclear. I’m normally a pretty perceptive viewer, but this movie felt like a quagmire of costumed people with different agendas, lands, religions, and motivations, and we got less than two slides of introduction to bring us up to speed. So, regardless of the historical issues in the film, it just doesn’t really hold up dramatically.
BEN IS BACK
Director: Peter Hedges (Pieces of April, Dan in Real Life, The Odd Life of Timothy Green)
Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Kathryn Newton, Courtney B Vance, and Michael Esper
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
Performances alone often cannot save a film that has a lack of style or an inconsistency in tone. There’s a part of Ben is Back that feels too inspirational or too safe, and that could likely be because of the specific director. There’s a comparison to Beautiful Boy also from this year that I’d like to make: Beautiful Boy fails by being so temporally disconnected from itself, going from year to year and situation to situation without any fluidity, but it contained the right kind of anguish in the performances of Carell and Chalamet, while Ben is Back has the right timeline and setup contained in just the span of two to three days, but the writing and acting never gets us that far into how bad of a situation this is.
Lucas Hedges is Ben, an opioid addicted teen who comes home for one day on Christmas after being in an in-patient rehab. His mother (Julia Roberts) is very supportive, but his younger sister (Kathryn Newton) and step-father (Courtney B. Vance) are a bit more skeptical of Ben. When his past comes to haunt him due to owing money from previous transgressions, Ben’s family is affected, and Ben (along with his mom) set off to right the ship before Christmas. At the same time, Ben’s retracing his previous steps gets him closer and closer to the things he’d been doing so well to avoid.
All of the performances here are fine, and it’s not the actors’ fault that the story never gives us the big moments of grief and anguish that a movie like this requires to be effective. There was a sense of not wanting to embrace the grime that drug use can lead to, instead opting for a more inspirational story about family, showing everything through Julia Roberts’s eyes as the mother. She’s fair game, as is Lucas Hedges as the tortured teen, but there really is only one scene that stuck out for being anything beyond ordinarily dramatic. Ben’s sister is a singer, so when they go to Christmas Eve mass, Ben cries due to regret sitting with his family, while his sister sees this from on stage and must continue to sing through the heartache. That specific scene alone, along with decent performances, make this a light recommend as a film, but very little stands out. It’s an ordinary movie that refuses to take risks.
I also watched the following films after their VOD release recently, here’re my thoughts: